Katie Harris | #039 09/07/2020

She's been around dairy farming her whole life, and managed to find a life partner who shares her passion for raising animals and producing milk. Katie Harris gives us a look inside life on a real Washington dairy, and the rollercoaster ride that it can be.

Transcript

Blake Carson | #038 08/31/2020

Although he's just out of college, Blake Carson has been growing food for years alongside his grandpa. Now as he helps other farmers, Blake sees a future with more food grown locally in spite of the challenges.

Transcript

Blake Carson:
I like to see things grow, I like to make food. I swear my whole life revolves around food prep and all that stuff.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
My guest on the podcast this week gives me hope for the future, I guess, of growing food, particularly in Western Washington. You’ll see that he has a passion for helping people grow food. He’s an agronomist right out of college. Blake Carson is his name. He works for Skagit Farmers Supply and he’s worked alongside his grandpa for years helping to grow food. So he has that background, that history, he has the experience to know the big challenges, but he also has the vision for the future where he wants to see food grown here that we don’t necessarily grow here anymore, but he knows that we can because he knows that history from working with his grandpa.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fascinating conversation and really inspiring when you hear that … And Blake is a really soft spoken guy, but he’s super transparent. You can tell this is all very important to him and that he’s thinking about how to make our food system here in our region better. Again, his name is Blake Carson. We had a great chat right in his grandpa’s machine shed. And I know I, for one, really enjoy this conversation this week. My name is Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys all over Washington state to get to know the real people behind our food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when was it that you got into farming because your folks aren’t in farming, right?

Blake Carson:
No, my parents aren’t. So my grandpa, he of course has farmed for quite a while and I started raking hay when I was nine years old. So, little nine year old me was out there jumping the clutch and wearing a cowboy hat raking hay. And yeah, I’d pretty much started right about then.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of farm did your grandpa have at that time?

Blake Carson:
He had just got out of the peas they’d left in Whatcom County and I think … Yeah, so he was doing about a couple 100 acres of hay where he’s selling it to horse people, feeding it to his replacement heifers, and he also did quite a bit of field corn. So that’s where I dipped my feet into doing a little bit of field work with four wheel drive tractors and whatnot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What had he farmed over the years though? You said he had done peas in the past, what else had he done back in the day?

Blake Carson:
So years ago, he and his brother they dairied together and they also did peas, sweetcorn, dabble a little bit with some green beans. Then they had their separation and he continued to just do the whole field corn route with other dairies after they quit dairing and just making it work with what he had.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re nine years old, starting to work on the farm. Do you live in town at that time or what?

Blake Carson:
I lived right down the road from my grandparents farm, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Well, that made it easy then to be right there?

Blake Carson:
Yep, yep. He’d always come pick me up in his old beer farm truck and I was always excited. I mean, most kids at nine years old, they are pretty excited to go out to the lake or whatever, but I was always itching to get back onto the tractor.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you caught the farming bug early on-

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… from your grandpa?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome. So where did you go from there? Because you, I’m assuming, kept helping on the farm right through high school and decided, “I want to be in farming.”

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So I played sports in high school. Towards the end of high school, I started working for a local seed potato farm. I did that springs and summers, falls, I did football. But from there, I decided to go to school at Washington State University. I was going to go be a Coug, go Cougs, and I was going to go do construction management. I saw there was a lot of opportunity for higher wages and a lot of job placement, but after a semester there, I decided just it wasn’t really my thing and I wanted to go back to agriculture. So went and pursued a degree in Agricultural Technology and Production Management, AgTM.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s a program like that teach you? What were you doing in classes with that stuff?

Blake Carson:
It’s basically a wide variety of … you have like science classes, your soil science, your biology or chemistry, and then you have a lot of business classes. I did a business minor as well, but there was a lot of Ag business, stats, economics, and then there was just a bunch of irrigation and hydraulics, electrics, all that stuff. So it was a pretty well rounded education I’d say.

Dillon Honcoop:
So everything on how to farm-

Blake Carson:
Yeah, pretty much.

Dillon Honcoop:
… from whatever perspective? So what was your plan at that point? What did you want to do with that degree when you were still in school?

Blake Carson:
I had no idea. I just wanted to … I don’t know. I thought about, oh, going to work for Simplot or McGregor or something like that through the basin, but I just ended up coming back here to work for Skagit Farmers Supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, talk about your job now. You’re an agronomist?

Blake Carson:
Yes, I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does that mean?

Blake Carson:
So I pretty much am responsible for all of the inputs in a handful of accounts that I have either opened or received. And I just check on their fields and make sure that there’s no disease or pass or anything bothering the yield on the crop, and I just make educated opinions on what kind of fertilizer inputs and chemical inputs that we’re going to use on this particular crop.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of crops are you keeping an eye on right now with the different farmers that you’re working with?

Blake Carson:
So I deal with a lot of potatoes, I deal with field corn, I deal with some seed crops, hay or grass, of course, and then a little bit of pickling cucumbers and green beans, and I guess I’m dabbling into berries right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like raspberries, blueberries?

Blake Carson:
Yes, raspberries and blueberries.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Whatcom and Skagit County is your area?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, Whatcom, Skagit, and I have a couple of accounts in the Snohomish.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, pretty wide area.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I’m all over the place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Driving all over, keeping track of all these farms.

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Seed crops, what kinds of seed crops?

Blake Carson:
Spinach seed and Swiss chard seed. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, those are probably in Skagit, right?

Blake Carson:
Actually the farmer that I deal with, he’s in Arlington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, down South there.

Blake Carson:
Yep. It’s very unique actually seeing the … It’s very high risk, but it can be very rewarding for a lot of these guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s it like helping to grow this food that people are going to eat? What does that mean to you?

Blake Carson:
Well, being on this side, the Ag consulting side of farming, it’s a whole lot different because you’re working with somebody else’s livelihood and you got to take that into consideration with every decision you make every day. And which brings on a different level of stress because you can get unloaded on for making a mistake and it could be an honest mistake, but you try to minimize those mistakes and try to make a great crop and that everybody will enjoy.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of farmers … Everybody knows the farming population is aging, here you’re a young guy. When did you graduate college, by the way?

Blake Carson:
This last December, so 2019.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so you’re just fresh out of college?

Blake Carson:
I’m fresh.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to deal with people being like, “Oh, you’re a young buck, what do you know?”

Blake Carson:
Absolutely, there are a lot of people that don’t take me very seriously which, I mean, it’s to be expected. But then, for me, I’ve been able to keep a level head and just navigate through those situations and people notice it. So, I just try to be the best field man, the best all round person that I can be because I don’t want people to hate me or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, is that like that on the job too? I would imagine brand new as an agronomist on this team, I know that team has some people who’ve been doing it for an awful long time and you probably have to feel like you prove yourself there too, right?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I definitely have to prove myself a lot. There’s a few guys, they don’t take me very seriously or, “Oh, he’s the new guy.” Like “Oh, I’m trying my best, man.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. I don’t know, but what makes more of a difference, your fresh college education or their years of experience? That may lead to different conclusions, right?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it definitely could. I mean, I’m not sure. I mean, I’m sure they probably think that, “Oh, you went to college, you don’t know anything,” which, I mean, I have learned quite a bit in the past, what is it? Eight months since December, but I’m not sure how to answer that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was your first season like? As an agronomist, things are busy in the late spring time when lots of stuff is being planted, then it gets less busy later on, right?

Blake Carson:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that first rush like keeping on top of everything? And I know it can just be, go, go, go.

Blake Carson:
Well, first off, I actually interned for Skagit last summer, so I had a little taste of what it’s like to be in a field man’s position. I rode with a couple of field men and figured out like, “Okay, this is stressful.” But my first spring, this last spring, it started off in late March because we had a really nice couple of weeks there in late March. So I got a little taste of it. It was nice because we were able to get some of the operations done before it all has to happen at the same time. So it was nice to divvy it out a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Blake Carson:
But I mean, there’s a lot of times where I’d be flying down the freeway and “Oh shoot,” I have to pull over and finding an exit and sit there and dilly dally with somebody order or whatever. It’s nice though, my pickup has Bluetooth, so I could just sit there and just take phone calls and … But yeah, it was very hectic.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re on the phone a lot and then having to pull over and probably get on your phone and deal with emails and orders and websites and all that stuff too?

Blake Carson:
Oh yeah, it’s a whole different world. I didn’t realize that there was so much email and the email really, really takes a toll, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think anybody work in a job dealing with lots of email or what it is about it.

Blake Carson:
Oh yeah. Well, it’s funny. It would be a lot easier to have like a group text message if you need to communicate, but for some reason they have to make a group email. I don’t know why, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Get on those strings, new emails keep popping up, “Yeah, is this something I need to look at or not?”

Blake Carson:
Yeah. You can just call me or text me and it’ll be more effective.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. So you got through the first season, what are you going to do different next season? What lessons did you learn?

Blake Carson:
I think that I probably need to be a little more organized. I have a lot of learning left to do and there’s a lot of economic principles that you don’t just pick up. You have to have a season or two or three or however many it takes to figure out, this is how this crop reacts to this herbicide or however you got to do it. But I think I have a lot of reading to do this winter. I plan on taking my CCA exam, I think, this February so I can become a certified crop advisor. Just everything that you can do in the off season to be better for the following season.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there’s a lot of science to it?

Blake Carson:
Oh, there certainly is, I mean, just understanding. I listened to Ag PhD a lot on the Apple Podcasts or whatever, and I learned a lot of principles that I just jot down as I’m driving around doing not a whole lot or whenever I’m not on the phone.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said sometimes you just have to deal with people giving you a rationale, “You know what?” Because they didn’t like maybe what you did or said. You had any real bad experiences with that so far?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I’ve had a couple of people give me a couple of nice words and you just got to take the BS, I guess. That’s part of the job. They don’t put that in the job description, but you know it’s there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the reason is for that? It’s just because this farming stuff is so high stress?

Blake Carson:
I mean, there’s so much going on at once and there’s money involved, and money just gets people pretty upset. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Worried about losing money?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And say an operator makes a mistake, well, you got to take the blame. You’re not going to throw your operator under the bus and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So the people that work for your company who are actually out driving the tractor applying or planting or whatever?

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s those people you mean by operator may make a mistake?

Blake Carson:
Yeah. So I’m not saying they have, but like if they do make a mistake that you got to take the fall for it as a field man because that’s not fair to your guy that blah, blah, “Oh, my guy did this.” It’s my problem. I got to deal with it, I got to talk to management to figure out, “Okay, how do we resolve this problem with this grower so he isn’t mad at us?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I’ve been that operator back in the day when I was planting corn for a similar operation to what you work for. Yeah, I was the operator and I made a few mistakes.

Blake Carson:
It happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the poor agronomist who was in your shoes had to probably go to the farmer and say, “Look, we didn’t quite get this right, maybe he missed a little spot or didn’t put enough fertilizer with.” And that’s stressful because then you feel like, “Ah, here, I’m just …” At that time I was a young guy in college, “I affected this guy’s crop now.” And usually there was a way to fix the problem some way, but it makes you nervous and that does really crank up the stress. I remember some pretty stressful days in the cab of the tractor. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that in the cab of your pickup where some days you’re just, “Ugh,” just feel like you’re in a vice.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, you’re ready to be home.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you get to be out in fields and growing food all the time too. That has to feel pretty awesome.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to see all these different cropping systems. I mean working with seed potatoes, you only see one or two cropping systems and that’s the way it is. And you learn a lot. I learned a lot on the seed potato farm and a lot of basic principles about mechanics and all sorts of stuff like that. But being able to see how every different farmer works their ground and how they apply their insecticide and everything about their program, it’s interesting to see how they’re successful or where they could change.

Blake Carson:
And that also gives me opportunity to have an opinion on, “Hey, you might want to look into this,” or you don’t want to say like, “Hey, this is what you need to be doing,” because no farmer wants to hear that. But I’m sure we’re here to make recommendations, that’s what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, “Have you considered this option?”

Blake Carson:
Yes, exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you worked for a seed potato farmer back, what? In high school and college?

Blake Carson:
Yes, I did. I worked for a seed potato farmer for four or five springs and summers in high school and college, which helped me get through college doing those 100 hour weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
100 hours?

Blake Carson:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. What kind of stuff are you doing for 100 hours in one week?

Blake Carson:
Oh, I’d be doing a lot of field work or planting potatoes or getting irrigation equipment ready. I mean the biggest push for me was always the planting season, but I mean, after that 60 hours a week doing irrigation, 70 hours a week doing irrigation, pulling hose, all sorts of stuff like that, repairs. I mean, that’s always going to happen on a farm, repairs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Constant.

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something breaking.

Blake Carson:
And the hose reel would always eat itself or something like that. Ugh, I don’t miss that too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that seed potato farm that you worked for just recently went out of business.

Blake Carson:
Yes, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’d be sad to see.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it was pretty terrible. I mean, I’m pretty close with them and it’s a shame. I feel terrible.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean with longtime family businesses like that going out, farms calling it quits, not just in seed potatoes, but in other areas? What does that make you think? Here you’re a young guy coming to this farming community, what does that make you think about the future? Are you worried about it?

Blake Carson:
I’m a little bit worried about the population increasing in Western Washington and the cost of land in Western Washington, it’s hard for … If you’re a family business or a family farm and you go out, there’s no getting back into it, really. I mean unless you have a large amount of capital to be able to get back into it these 20, $30,000 an acre pieces of ground, you’re not just going to be able to pull out your pocket. And for the crops that we have here in Whatcom County, I mean, besides corn, it’s going to take a lot of inputs as far as per acre cost.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), very expensive too. A lot you need to invest before you start harvesting a crop and trying to make some of that investment back.

Blake Carson:
Exactly, you can’t just go out and throw some potatoes in the ground, then, “Hey, look, I got some seed potatoes.” You got to have the storage, you got to have the equipment, you got to have buyers, you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
As a ballpark, what would you say? What does it cost? What kind of investment does an acre of seed potatoes have into it before they actually realize anything back from it?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, probably five, $10,000 an acre. I mean, it’s tough out there. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is back to what you were saying about people being stressed and when money is on the line, that’s it too, because they’ve invested a lot already. And then if at some point in that chain before those potatoes are harvested and sold and that money is back in their pocket to pay off some of those investments in debts, if you mess up something in that chain, it’s like, “Whoa.”

Blake Carson:
You’re right.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s intense.

Blake Carson:
And you could just mess up at the end. You get a disease and you put your potatoes in storage, and there goes your storage. I mean, it’s never ending for them until it’s on the truck and gone.

Dillon Honcoop:
You want to do your own farming in the future?

Blake Carson:
I’d like. I mean, it’s tough to see where I’m going to be, but I mean, it’s all I know as it would be nice to be able to at least farm on the side just to have my foot into it and just have fun with it, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Even though all you’re describing doesn’t sound fun at all, it’s sounds stressful.

Blake Carson:
No, no. That sounds very stressful, huh?

Dillon Honcoop:
But apparently there is some fun to it as well.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I think probably part of the pride of calling yourself a farmer and feed people, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What would you like to grow?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, I’d like to grow some annual crop. I think that’s what we need here in Whatcom County is an annual crop that doesn’t take as much of it as an investment and sell as a locally produced food because it seems like that’s the way that … with the coronavirus, at least, everybody is looking for a local crop, locally produced food that they can get to. So finding some co-op that could store or process these kinds of locally grown foods would be ideal.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were saying like grow a crop that isn’t necessarily grown here in Whatcom County now?

Blake Carson:
Right, or it might be grown to an acre or whatever. I’m sure there’s probably crops that an organic guy or hobby farmer might have in their backyard that would be worth looking into for a few other people to grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying maybe the big guys could learn something from the little guys?

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do you think farmers feel that or I know there can be some skepticism both ways between really, really small hobby farms and big farms and those in between?

Blake Carson:
I definitely see a big gap between the bigger farms and the smaller farms. And the bigger farms, they got everything going for them and I don’t blame them for wanting to think that way, but being small on a smaller side of the scale, you are always looking for something different, I imagine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), easier to pivot and do something different when you’re small?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve always said both sides could learn a lot from each other if they didn’t feel so competitive. And for what reason? Because they aren’t actually competing usually in the same market at all.

Blake Carson:
It’s not apples to apples at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
No. But like you were saying, the big guys could learn a lot from these little guys who are able to try different stuff and figure it out. Little guys could learn from the big guys too, about some of the ways and the efficiencies that they’ve found.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, and marketing [crosstalk 00:23:36]-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the big guys have to be so efficient to do what they do.

Blake Carson:
They got to have good accountants.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, to keep on top of everything.

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you could grow a crop, produce local food, maybe something that isn’t already grown here. I don’t know, what would that be like?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, I always heard about how fun the peas were when the peas were around and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing peas, yeah.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it would be cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
My dad used to grow peas when I was 10.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, my grandpa grew peas as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess what I was thinking when you were saying, “Well, grow something that isn’t growing here now,” why now? Why isn’t that stuff grown here?

Blake Carson:
Oh, I think everything has to do with marketing. Well, when Twin City Foods left all the … Or I guess there was probably several processors, but I mean the recent one that I knew about was Twin City Foods, and where do you sell your peas? I mean, you could sell sweet corn on the side of the road. That’s going to get you so far, but finding a place to be able to sell your local foods if there was some storage that you’re able to get ahold of or processor or whatever, I think that’s the biggest barrier for a lot of these people wanting to put something in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there’s just not the processing facilities infrastructure here?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, that’s nothing like the Columbia Basin or Skagit Valley where you just go to Othello or wherever and there’s processor here, processor there, here’s your contract and put it in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there’s no other reason we couldn’t grow that stuff here?

Blake Carson:
I mean, as far as I know, say, for example, the Skagit Valley, the quality of the green beans, green beans have such higher quality than the ones in the Basin because the cooler nights, they don’t get wind burnt here or down in Skagit Valley. I imagine the sand probably has a lot to do with getting wind burnt. So I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of crops that you could grow here that would probably have a lot higher quality as long as it’s not something like onions that’s going to take probably a lot longer growing days. But yeah, I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for a lot of those crops to come back. I mean, I heard they used to grow up carrots here, they used to grow all sorts of things here in Whatcom County.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, back when they were processing facilities to actually package that stuff up and get it to the consumer. That seems to be the gap, and you’re not the only person that I’m hearing that from.

Blake Carson:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Blake Carson:
That’s a big gap. But I mean, I think that the way that the coronavirus and I mean just as we’ve gone on in the last few years that there’s probably going to be a shift where people do want local food and there’s a great opportunity for Whatcom and Skagit to supply local food to Bellingham, to BC, to Seattle, because there’s a lot of acres around here and a lot of dairies going out.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You work with any dairy farmers right now? I know that community is under a lot of pressure.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I work with a handful and it’s a very unique … I still don’t understand the whole base thing. I mean, I get it when people want to get out and get a lot of money and wish they wouldn’t have two years ago, but I mean, I think it’s a very complex topic that … I mean, it’s been happening for quite a while here, I mean, how many dairies used to be here 30 years ago? 600 or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, something like that.

Blake Carson:
Yeah. I mean now there’s probably what? 100, 50, 75 maybe?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think somewhere more under 100 now. Yeah.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of consolidation that’s happened, but now it’s not so much consolidation, it’s get out.

Dillon Honcoop:
Get out and the cows go away, they go somewhere else.

Blake Carson:
Yes, no more cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
From all the farmers, dairy farmers, crop farmers that you work with, what’s the biggest pressure that you’re hearing they feel they’re under? What are some of the things that they’re worrying about in the big picture?

Blake Carson:
I hear a lot about water. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the concern with water? What are they worried about?

Blake Carson:
Tribes shutting them off. Hearing about, I mean, the cost of land is increasing, there’s farmland being lost to housing developments. I think that’s all I can really think of right now, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and you know because you work directly with these people weighs pretty heavily on their mind?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And markets too. I mean, I have a guy that has … he does wheat and straw and I mean, you’re not ever going to make money on wheat here. And I mean, that’s just one of those rotations, but it’s really hard to make money on wheat in Western Washington. We don’t have 4,000 acres with a very low land costs where it makes sense to grow wheat. I mean this 20, $30,000 an acre here and you’re not covering that cost with wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally. You mentioned water too. If people lost access to water, what would that mean for farms around here?

Blake Carson:
Like potatoes, I mean, you definitely need water. I mean, there’s some pieces of ground you can get away without watering but you’re not going to get nearly the yield that you want without water. So a lot of guys get shut off, there goes yield potential.

Dillon Honcoop:
Would they be able to just deal with that or pivot and do something else? Or what would happen to those farms?

Blake Carson:
I mean, that’s probably going to impact their yield quite a bit. I mean, we work with a grower here in Whatcom, he uses drip tape and it’s a very efficient use of water. I mean, it costs a lot of money to run that stuff, but who knows? I mean, it might be the way to go for a lot of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, thankfully we get quite a bit of moisture here.

Blake Carson:
We do. We’re not the Basin for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
And our aquifer is usually only 10 to 20 feet down, so that helps keep the soil at least have a little bit more moisture in it for more of the year.

Blake Carson:
Right. I hear about some of these depths in some of these wells in Eastern Washington and it’s just mind boggling.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I visited with Case VanderMeulen while back there in Mesa and I think one of his wells is at 1,800 feet down.

Blake Carson:
That’s quite the bill.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy to think about.

Blake Carson:
And how do you pump that far?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, it takes a lot more juice. There’s a lot more investment in the electricity to be able to irrigate than for us who, here in Western Washington, have to pump the water up 20 feet max usually, makes a big difference.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I know. Yeah, you don’t see much more than 20 feet here as far as irrigation wells.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and we’re blessed with that reservoir. In other areas, they use reservoirs above ground, but here our reservoir is the groundwater.

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that has also helped a lot of people take their irrigation off of streams and use this groundwater instead when they’re able to protect stream flows, which is a good thing.

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
How has coronavirus affected your day to day?

Blake Carson:
I’m pretty mobile and I work remotely from my work truck, so I don’t see too many people, I don’t sit in an office with too many people. I actually had the coronavirus back in June.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Blake Carson:
Yeah. So I have no idea where I got it, but yeah, it didn’t affect me too bad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, well, explain how it went, tell the story.

Blake Carson:
Oh, well I was spraying a grass field of mine in one of my hay fields and a little open station, 2440 John Deere and parked along, and the next day I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that this tractor right here?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, that one. Yeah, I didn’t know it was right.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that, I love that.

Blake Carson:
Yeah. And so next day I had this little tickle in the back of my throat. And so I got towards the end of the week, it was like a Tuesday that I noticed that and it was like Thursday and started to get worse and I figured, “Well, I’ll just go to Skagit Valley College, they have a drive through swab deal or so I’ll just go there to rule the coronavirus out.”

Blake Carson:
And I guess, that Saturday they said, “Oh yeah, you have coronavirus.” “Oh shoot.” Yeah, my girlfriend and I had a quarantine for … Oh, she had to quarantine way longer than I did because it was like, for me, is 10 days after the first symptoms and I just felt under the weather for about a week and I can’t taste or smell anything for two weeks. But other than that, it wasn’t terrible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why did she have to quarantine longer?

Blake Carson:
Because she could have been exposed to my symptoms because they went on for 10 days [crosstalk 00:33:22]-

Dillon Honcoop:
So did she ever get it?

Blake Carson:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
She didn’t get it?

Blake Carson:
No, and we live together.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hmm, crazy.

Blake Carson:
Maybe she gave it to me, I don’t know. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
But she didn’t show any symptoms, but she had to quarantine longer because in case she did, then it would be that much more delayed?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, so she had a quarantine two weeks past my 10 days. So she was at home for quite a while. She actually started working from home, which worked out, less driving and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What does she do?

Blake Carson:
She actually works at Skagit Farmers Supply too in the credit department.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, yeah. We met at WSU.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice. So you work at the same operation as your girlfriend?

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you don’t actually work together on a daily basis?

Blake Carson:
No, not at all. No, not at all. I asked my boss, “Wouldn’t be weird if she applied?” Because it was actually really hard for her to find a job. Well, she got a degree as Ag economics from WSU and she had a terrible time finding a job. And, was it May? Oh, no, April, because she got let out early because of the coronavirus, and so I asked my boss, “Oh, is it weird if Emily applies?” And he goes, “Oh no, not at all. Okay, whatever.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Perfect, yeah.

Blake Carson:
Yeah?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, he’s got to think, “Oh, is there some conflict or something?”

Blake Carson:
Right, yeah. It wasn’t too bad.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does she want to do? She want to be a farmer too?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I think-

Dillon Honcoop:
She just wants to be an Ag economist.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, she-

Dillon Honcoop:
Did she like the actual get in the dirt stuff too?

Blake Carson:
She likes the numbers, but she really likes the baldy calves. She just loves the baldy calves for whatever reason.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? What’s different about them?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, I guess they’re cute little buggers.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you guys raise some calves or she does or-

Blake Carson:
Yeah, so my grandpa’s got a whole, I don’t know, 20 head of Angus and yeah, they just calved like a month and a half ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what’s a baldy calf?

Blake Carson:
Oh, it’s a black Angus with a white face, beyond me, why they get that, I’d forget. But yeah, they just have a white face calling them up like a bald eagle and it’s a bald calf, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. Is that because they’re crossed with something else or are they still-

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I think so. It has something to do with … I don’t know, to be honest with-

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t either because I’m not a big animal person as much but I know I’ve been told before.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I would like to-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I was hoping you would know.

Blake Carson:
Right. No, no, no. [crosstalk 00:36:03]-

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re like me. You sound like you’re more of a crop guy like me.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I’m more of a crop guy, but I want to dabble into the cattle a little bit more. I mean, I always help separate the … He used to have like 200 head of replacement heifers here for quite a while, so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Your grandpa?

Blake Carson:
Yeah. So, I’d always help separate and I didn’t necessarily hate the animals, but I just love the tractors.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Me too. Totally get that. And I helped my grandparents on their dairy farms, but I wasn’t a cow guy. I was a tractor in field and crop guy.

Blake Carson:
It seems like on most dairy animal type farms, they’re either one or the other from what I’ve noticed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And you see a lot of families split up duties that way too where one brother does the field side and the other brother does the cow side or something like that.

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. That works out, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. So you think you might end up doing some farming yourself?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re working with other farmers?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy life.

Blake Carson:
It is, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Driving all over the place. Why do you love it so much? What keeps you going through those stressful days?

Blake Carson:
Now, I don’t know. I like to see things grow, I like to make food, I think. Between hunting and fishing and growing food, having a garden, I mean, I think I swear my whole life revolves around food prep than all that stuff, but I don’t know, I just like to. It’s beautiful seeing corn grow, it’s beautiful seeing potatoes grow, beautiful seeing them getting harvested, and I guess just the process of the hard work, I think. I attribute 99% of my work ethic to the agriculture lifestyle, so I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story and opening up about what you do and why you do it.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, thank you.

Dillon Honcoop:
It takes so many people and it’s cool to see someone like you even just straight out of college being willing to make that jump into it. Because a lot of people right now are saying, “Why would you get into farming? Farming is going downhill.” I hope it isn’t because I think we need to still be growing the food that we eat here.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, people got to eat, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And we need people like you getting in to farming to keep it going for the next generation and beyond.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, I guess a lot of guys I went to school with in Pullman, there’s a lot of young people, there’s quite a few young farm kids, but as far as Western Washington, it’s hard to find very many young college aged folks that are going to be into farming, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why do you think that is? Why do people your age coming out of college not want to get into farming?

Blake Carson:
Probably a generational thing. I mean, I think kids not working over the summer and I think you hear about the older generation, they all milk cows in high school and middle school or whatever, and a lot of the kids that I went to high school with or a lot of kids that you see now, they play video games and go swimming, which I get you got to do that here and there, but I feel like getting that early work in and being able to be a part of something like that, I think, keeps that farming around.

Dillon Honcoop:
You learn to value that at a young age, the hard work and then the payoff for putting in that work to see the crop grow even as a young kid to work and discover, hey, you have a few bucks, “I can go buy my own bike,” or-

Blake Carson:
Exactly, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that kind of a thing.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, throwing some heavy ryegrass bales into the hay mount when you’re 10 or 12, that teaches you a few things too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. And plus it makes you stronger.

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, thanks, Dillon.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, these are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
With somebody that young, it’s going to be really fun to watch what he accomplishes. And he’s just getting his feet wet right now and learning from a ton of people with a lot of experience. But like he was saying, he wants to do this himself, more than just helping people as an agronomist, advising them on their crops, he wants to grow food himself and he has a vision for the way that it could be different than it is now. So again, I’m really thankful that that Blake was so transparent and open with me about what he’s thinking along those lines.

Dillon Honcoop:
Love these kinds of conversations, this is what I’m all about, that’s what this podcast is all about, is getting to know these real people because there are so many of them in our food system. And elevating their voices, getting to know them helps us get closer to change. Realfoodrealpeople.org is our website where you can get all of the episodes that we’ve done to date. And we’ve got a lot more planned, let me tell you.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop, I grew up on a local red raspberry farm in Whatcom County, so the same place that Blake grew up. And so that’s where we shared some common background. I’m on a journey all over Washington State though, to get to know the Blake Carson’s and so many others out there growing our food. I would really appreciate your support. To be able to keep doing this, we need to expand our reach and bring more people into the conversation. Please share these stories and information about the podcast on your social media if you can, on Facebook or on Instagram or on Twitter, Real Food Real People, or I guess @rfrp_podcast is the handle on our social media channels.

Dillon Honcoop:
Check us out on YouTube as well, we’ll have the full interview that you just heard available to watch so you can see the machine shed, you can see the tractors, you can get a look at some of the great expressions on Blake’s face. Thank you for your support. Thanks for being here again this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families, find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Steve Pabody | #035 08/10/2020

A freak incident almost killed Steve Pabody, completely changing his perspective on how he manages his small farm in Ferndale, WA. Hear how he and his wife started Triple Wren Farms with no farming experience, and grew it into a diverse, thriving operation.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
They saved your life.

Steve Pabody:
I think so. I think several times, probably.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
The good news is, those nurses, I told them, I said, “You guys saved my life and I can’t really return the favor, but you get free blueberries for life.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
A very scary freak incident almost killed Steve Pabody. He’s our guest this week. He and his wife founded and own Triple Wren Farms in Ferndale, Washington, producing various veggies and some fruit and blueberries and a lot of flowers, dahlias and other flowers. That’s kind of their claim to fame. He came from no farming background and worked his way into being one of the biggest flower producers in the area. He has an incredible story to tell, including that scary episode where he almost lost his life but bounced back, and it’s changed his perspective. So join me in this conversation with Steve Pabody at Triple Wren Farms. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food.

Steve Pabody:
A friend of mine, his wife’s always posting, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
So he posted one, a picture on Instagram. She’s a flower farmer as well. He’s looking down. He goes, “This is what my opinion is of all my wife’s photos. Oh, my poor flowers.” I said, “Yeah, that’s spot on, man. Spot on.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, but if it works, if it sells the flowers, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. 27,000 Instagram followers, it’s got to be working.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you guys do that?

Steve Pabody:
We just post pictures of … Well, two things, two things. Number one, we have an amazing flower field and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, as we can see here.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes, yes. And of course, my wife’s photography. But then a lot of what she’s done the last couple years is we’ve just kind of shared our heart. So where she may be learning some personal things or we just navigate some sticky situations, she just shares that. I think that really kind of connects with people, so they get excited about that. But without good photography, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all about the photography, especially on the ‘Gram.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. On Instagram for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, you’re a flower farmer. We’re going to hear all about the farm. But you didn’t start farming, right?

Steve Pabody:
I didn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing professionally before you decided to become a farmer?

Steve Pabody:
I actually went to school for theology.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yes. And so I worked at some ministries, a Christian camp, and then I was in the pastorate for a little while, and then it was just a brief time where I was between really God’s direction in my life and a friend of mine offered me a chance to babysit their orchard. I told him, I said, “Hey, I don’t know anything about apples. But even worse, I don’t know anything about farming. I don’t know anything about agriculture. I don’t even know anything about business.” So he asked if I would maintain his property and watch over his orchard and run the whole operation. So meanwhile, my wife picked up a book at the library and it says, “How you can be a flower farmer.” She thought, “Oh, that’s awesome.” She showed it to me and I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to run this orchard and we’re going to grow vegetables and be market farmers.” And I didn’t sell a lot of vegetables.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where was this?

Steve Pabody:
It was right in Ferndale. Ferndale, Washington, yep. And so while I was busy trying to figure out how to grow apples and how to keep everything alive, she was reading flower farmer books and it just … I don’t know, I think it kind of ignited something in here where she was like, “Hey, yeah. I always thought it would be cool to grow a lot of flowers and now we can do it profitably.” We sold every stem she grew, and what the rabbits didn’t eat of my vegetables, we composted whatever we couldn’t consume ourselves. And so I knew that that was not the future for me, and so we started growing flowers and it just kind of took off from there. Now obviously-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how did you get this farm?

Steve Pabody:
Well-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s one of the hardest parts, is to get in to get some ground to grow stuff on, right?

Steve Pabody:
It is. It is. And in the beginning, when we were just watching somebody else’s property and doing this as an experiment, we didn’t really think that we would ever own our own place. So we just started looking around, started talking to farmers here in Whatcom County that know about what ground is good and what’s important. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with farmers and they say, “If I could do it all over again, I would make sure I had 100% water rights.” That’s probably the first thing that everyone tells me. Have water rights. And then know what kind of soil you have. Another smart farmer told me, “You should grow whatever your soil is set up to grow already. Don’t try to grow broccoli in Whatcom County. It’s going to be a tough run.” So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, I hear that it can be done.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and I know-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the right soil if you can find it.

Steve Pabody:
And there’s some great farmers who do that. But yeah, even in the flower world, there are some flowers that like a thick, heavy soil and there are some flowers that don’t. And so we’re on this beautiful berry soil. It’s got that Lindale loam and that trope loam, and I got a little bit of [inaudible 00:05:37] muck as my property slopes down to the peat bogs over there. But yeah, I don’t do good with flowers that need that thick, heavy, chunky stuff. I do stuff that grow beautiful on this loam. And as you can see, something’s working.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re doing all right. Something is working.

Steve Pabody:
They’re doing just fine, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk about that journey. You get this piece of land at some point and start … What was your philosophy going into this? How much was it just pieced at a time and how much was there an overarching plan of, “This is where we want to get to”?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The story of how we got it, or … It is an adventure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Either one.

Steve Pabody:
I don’t want to bore you with that, but …

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, either one. No.

Steve Pabody:
Well, I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re here to hear the details. All the gory details.

Steve Pabody:
Okay. Should I drop names? Do we want that, too?

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, whatever you feel comfortable with.

Steve Pabody:
I got to be friends with Randy Craft with Barbie’s Berries and very graciously he answered about a billion of my questions like, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this,” or, “What do you think?” Just even irrigation questions and just general knowledge that I should have had that I didn’t that he and just … Again, I could name probably 30, 40 farmers that have just graciously looked at me like I look at my small children and patiently told them what’s going on.

Steve Pabody:
So when I was talking about land, I knew that I probably should just find some farmers who knew the area and knew what might be available in a couple years or what is a good place to look. Randy said, “Hey, you should look at that property that the USDA is up for foreclosure. They’re auctioning it off and they’re looking for a new farmer, a young farmer to come take it up.” And it just worked out. We got in there right when they were closing it and they did a raffle, almost. And so we still had to pay for it, but we had the ability to-

Dillon Honcoop:
It wasn’t like, $2 ticket and who comes away with the property kind of thing? Not that kind of raffle?

Steve Pabody:
Unfortunately. No, no, no, no. I wish it was that kind of raffle. No. But the have a program where some of their funds are allocated toward new farmers, young farmers, beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and if you’ve been farming for more than three years but less than 10 years, you qualify as … You just need some help, generally. And so that’s how we got this property. Then when we got here, we were still at the orchard. We were trying to do both, trying to manage the orchard and trying to manage this, trying to get this up and going. It was a foreclosure, so the property owners kind of took away everything that you would think that … They took the pump and they took a lot of stuff. So anyways, it took a lot longer to redo the house than I was anticipating, and then just to get things in place that I didn’t have and didn’t know exactly what I needed. So again, the great community here at Whatcom County selling me what I needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what were you doing to be able to pay the bills at that point? How were you making it go?

Steve Pabody:
After we got this property?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Well, we were selling flowers and hoofing it. I mean, in the very, very beginning, how we started getting an income is I did have my housing and a living because I was managing somebody else’s property. I was living at their place, so just had utilities, basic things. And we just grew flowers and sold them to anybody that would buy them, so that meant driving to florists, talking to grocery stores. And eventually, it just happened that we found a couple of buyers at grocery stores that said, “Oh yeah, we’ll buy your product.” We’d take sample buckets and say, “Hey, look, this is what we can do and we can do it for you.” So they were gracious enough to give us a shot, and then we just started tripling and quadrupling what we were growing every year. And now we have a little bit of extra.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you had kind of a philosophy, though, of sustainability in putting this all together, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, I think that in the beginning, it’s a very romantic notion to think that you could just jump into the middle of something that we’ve been doing for hundreds of years and make sense of it, number one. But getting back to the land, growing our own food, growing agricultural products that we’re reselling, the idea was, let’s do that in a way that benefits nature and the world around us instead of takes away from it. And I think there’s so many people now that have just been awakened to a lot of the flip side of that, just making a profit at the cost of everything around you. In the community that I’m in, the agricultural community, I don’t know anybody who thinks that way because that’s just like burning the bridge that you’re walking on, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Eventually-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a good analogy.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I mean, maybe burning it behind you as you’re walking, maybe, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
But still, that’s stupid and-

Steve Pabody:
Right, and nobody does that. I mean, farmers understand, “Okay, so I’ve got to manage everything. So that means keeping water on my field but doing it efficiently so I’m not spending all the money in infrastructure, electricity, and just wearing everything out.” So it’s all about balancing everything out. “There’s bugs on my vegetable.” Well, nobody really wants to eat vegetables with bugs. They don’t. So you got to do something to keep them off. You can go out and pinch them all off if you want, but that’s going to limit the amount of vegetables you can grow effectively, right? So all of those things, just really understanding how the plant is growing, what it needs, how can you help it.

Steve Pabody:
So sustainability was a thing that we were striving for in the very beginning because there are some family goals that we have and the idea … When the opportunities started to present themselves … I say opportunities because it’s almost like we’ve course corrected every year. We do one thing, it’s working great, and then the customer decides, “Oh, we don’t need those sunflowers anymore.” Okay, now what am I going to do with 1,000 sunflowers a week for five more weeks? Well, better find somebody else to sell them to. When we started scaling up our dahlia operation, we were wholesaling them to another farmer who was then retailing them. And we said, “Great. What’s the limit?” They said, “Oh, there’s no limit. We’re selling out, so as many tubers as you can give us, we will sell.” And then they decided, “You know what? We’re going a different direction,” after we just bought a bunch of tubers.

Steve Pabody:
But, I mean, we’re indebted to Chris and Erin Benzakein out of Mount Vernon with Floret Flower Farm. We’re indebted to them because Chris said, “Well, why don’t you just retail your tubers?” And I said, “Man, we can’t do that. We’re not you. You’re the picture perfect flower farmer.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody knows Floret now. They’ve become such a thing, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Well, I mean, Erin posts a picture and a bazillion people say, “Yay, I want to be just like you and own a flower farm,” and so when they decided to stop selling tubers and start breeding their own, I had a bunch of tubers that I was planning on them selling. So Chris says, “Well, you just sell them.” And I was like, “I can’t do that.” We sold them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Steve Pabody:
And consequently, we’ve had to triple what we’ve had the last couple of years. We keep tripling every year. This year, I’ve got about 28, 29,000 in the ground. Believe it or not, it’s August and I’m still putting tubers in the ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. So I don’t think I’ll triple next year. 100,000 dahlias is too much for me. But yeah, it’s safe to say that we’re in the 30,000 dahlia range, and we’re still selling most everything we can produce.

Dillon Honcoop:
And selling them to who? Just online direct to the consumer, or what?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. Online is the place where we sell our tubers. And then fresh cut flowers, we sell them everybody in the area. Well, anybody who wants them. Currently, we just packed an order up for Charlie’s Produce, and I was amazed to find out where they’re going. I said, “Where are these things going to end up?” I thought probably a chain in Seattle. She goes, “Actually, these are going to Wyoming.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
I said, “What?” She goes, “Yeah, I’m not sure if these dahlias are going to Jackson Hole, but the last order we did with them went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.” I’m like, “That is insane.” So closer to home, we sell Whole Foods. Not all of their stores, just about all their Washington stores are using our dahlias. And then the Metropolitan Market, it’s a chain in Seattle. They get our stuff. A couple other chains that sometimes order and sometimes don’t. We’ll just see how the new normal is. We’ll see if we still sell to those or not, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody knows, really, what’s going to happen next.

Steve Pabody:
No. Yeah. So we’re just trying to stay flexible and get ready to course correct again if we need to. But yeah, that’s where we are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not just dahlias that you grow, though, right?

Steve Pabody:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
You kind of have a whole rotation going.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. We used to grow more variety. But in the beginning, we grew more variety because we would really specifically grow to what our customers would say they need. So when we were selling to small florists, they would really need us to succession plant everything so that they could have sunflowers whenever they needed them, or some of the more ethereal, delicate flowers. So we would grow lots of different kinds of those flowers where one particular flower like a cosmos … I mean, we might grow … In the beginning, now, we might grow five or six different varieties so that we could get the different colors so it would match what they needed. That’s just a lot of variety, a lot of planning. Fortunately, my wife handles all the planning. So that’s what we-

Dillon Honcoop:
Same.

Steve Pabody:
There you go. Very good. So that’s what we did in the beginning, and then we started to find that there was a bit more opportunity for us in the way that our overall goal was to grow more of less varieties. So again in the beginning, 150, 200 different types of stuff. That was insane.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like different types of dahlias, or dahlias and all different kinds of flowers?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Everything. Everything from hellebore starts in the winter to ranunculus, anemone, onto your summer flowers, then your fall flowers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
At the same time, on rented land, we didn’t do a lot of this but we started to establish some perennials, so we put in some roses and some hydrangeas and some stuff that we knew was a longterm crop. But yeah, now that we’re on our own place, we’re still doing that. We’ve got a couple thousand roses and we put in four new colors this year, so put in the coveted Koko Loko and Distant Drums and Honey Dijon and State of Grace. So those are roses that even a designer can’t always go to the wholesaler and get them because they’re just not as bulletproof as some of the South American roses that are available. And so when we find-

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s the stuff that’s in the grocery store, kind of all the time, middle of winter? That stuff’s coming from South America?

Steve Pabody:
Middle of winter, probably, yeah. There’s a lot of great farms down there, and I love the fact that as a … Because part of what we do is also we design for events and weddings. Not this year, but we had 60 two years ago, 44 or 45 weddings last year, and this year everybody canceled except two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
Now, fortunately, some of those that had canceled have actually … They just needed to do really small backyard ceremonies, so we’ll sell them flowers, but it’s not the whole …

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Steve Pabody:
… couple thousand dollar flower budget. No, they’re looking for $100 worth of flowers, some, because it’s them and their in-laws.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, but with the roses, the ones that are coming up in the winter, those are … or they’re for sale in the winter … those are very sturdy and they’ve been bred so that they store well and that they ship well and that they last a long time. That’s a little bit different than your grandmother’s roses that you went out there and smelled and just remember her baking cookies and going out and walking through her flower garden, yeah. So those are the kind of roses that we’re growing. I’m thankful for those South American farms that produce flowers when we can’t, but I’m sure willing to put my flowers against them …

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Steve Pabody:
… during season any day of the week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Local.

Steve Pabody:
Local, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where it’s at.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and it’s just if you’re getting a rose at a grocery store that’s coming from South America, that was picked sometimes a week and a half ago, put in cold storage, kind of like Han Solo from Star Wars, frozen. Not quite, but … And then by the time it gets to the grocery store, a lot of those are going to a distribution center and then it’s taking another day to transit, then it’s coming here. I mean, by the time you get it here, it’s already almost on its last leg.

Dillon Honcoop:
A little different than when people get your flowers. They’re cut the same day.

Steve Pabody:
A lot of times, yep, same day or the day before.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or the day before.

Steve Pabody:
Yep, so we can condition them and get them to you so they’re just in the perfect state.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Now, you guys grow more than just flowers, though, too, right? You’ve got blueberries, other stuff. What else do you have?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The addictions, they run deep. We did-

Dillon Honcoop:
Addictions. I like that.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Well, just as kind of a side note, I started keeping bees because we needed bees for the orchard, so I just started talking to the beekeeper who brought them in and I thought, “This is amazing. I love this.” And he goes, “Well, you should buy a couple of hives.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So I bought-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re a beekeeper, too.

Steve Pabody:
So I bought three hives and then he’s like, “Well, if they’re healthy and they’re getting lots of nectar, you need to split them and keep them healthy, keep them balanced. You split them.” So I split them, and all of the sudden I had nine hives at the end of the year. Then I had 14 and all the sudden I turned around and I had 37 or 38 hives and I was like, “This is a problem.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Another addiction.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So it’s the same way with, hey, I love good food and I love to grow things, and so I’ll start planting some garlic and then next thing you know, I’m like, “I got 600 feet of garlic. What am I going to do with 600 feet of garlic?” So yeah, we got a lot of vegetables and what we kind of pivoted this last year is growing vegetables and just edible flowers so that we could use them for our events. However, our events, all of our night retreats have been canceled.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. All these big plans that a lot of people have had related to events this year, 2020.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. However, we’ve been eating really good here at Triple Wren Farms. These gourmet tomatoes and all the specialty sweet corn. [crosstalk 00:20:42]

Dillon Honcoop:
You have a little you-pick thing going on here, too, right?

Steve Pabody:
I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that just for blueberries, or can some of those other veggies go to people that way?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, sometimes we do put other veggies in our farm stand up there. But yeah, when we got the property, it had two and a half acres of blueberries on it, and so I was like-

Dillon Honcoop:
Blueberries take a long time to establish, so hey, they’re already there, a lot of that work’s been done, right?

Steve Pabody:
Right, yeah. So thank you to the person who planted them and maintained them for the last couple of years. But yeah, they’re actually about 30-year-old bushes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh wow.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. So I don’t do hardly anything to them, much to the chagrin of most of the blueberry farmers listening, I would imagine. But yeah, I mow them and try to keep the blackberries out, but I don’t even have a water on them yet. Fortunately, most of them are in really good, thick soil so they can make it through. And this year, we’ve gotten the extra rain. The berries are huge and they’re delicious. So yeah, with minimal effort, we have a phenomenal blueberry for you pick. It’s a great way for people to pick blueberries, spend some time outside of their quarantine area, and then walk through the flower fields. A lot of people love to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many total acres do you have here?

Steve Pabody:
There’s a little over 20.

Dillon Honcoop:
20 acres.

Steve Pabody:
Or in the words of a wise farmer … I said, “I’m looking for about 20 acres.” He goes, “That’s a lot of grass to mow.” Should have listened a little bit more to the wise, sage advice. The more property you get, the more management it’s going to take. So yeah, five acres is looking pretty good right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you wouldn’t be able to produce nearly as much product as you do, right?

Steve Pabody:
Well, that’s true. Yeah, there’s about six acres in the flower production. Then I’ve got the blueberries, and I’ve just tilled up another four acres in the back that I’m just trying to put the fertility back in there. For years, the people who were here before me hayed it, and that, done well, is great for your soil. But if you don’t put any nutrition back in, or if you just cut and don’t ever give back … So yeah, I’m in the process of putting some dairy solids. My generous neighbor, Mr. Ed, has got all the-

Dillon Honcoop:
The manure.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I asked him in the beginning, I said, “Hey, do you mind if I grab some of that press solids?” And he said, “Yeah, I mind if you grab a little. You should take it all.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds like Ed.

Steve Pabody:
He said-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know your neighbor.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I said, “Well, you want me to call and let you guys know that I’m there picking it up? I’ll just drive over and pick it up with my tractor because I’m next door.” And he goes, “Do I want you to call?” “Yeah, so people don’t think I’m stealing.” He goes, “Stealing poop?” He said, “Trust me. Steal all the poop you want.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh man. So you grow food, you grow flowers. Talk about your family. I mean, you guys are kind of doing it all, plus some extra crew that comes in at times for harvesting things, et cetera?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Of course, COVID changed all that. We normally have quite a bigger crew early spring, and then harvesting, there’s … We ship thousands of stems every week, and so we just physically can’t do that with two people. We tried. It’s not possible. So yeah, there’s about a dozen people that are seasonal. A couple of them are closer to full time and this last year, pretty close to year round, but still just a little bit of gap when that COVID hit us. So we had to scale that back, especially with inside, the shipping and the tasks that we had to do that was inside a barn, we couldn’t really socially distance. And so that we just had to do all in house, so it was Team Pabody. But yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Work, work, work.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. But during the season, like I said, there’s about … I think we’re at 12, maybe 14 people. And that will drastically be reduced after we get our first frost, because from July til … For us, we get a frost the first week of October, and so from then it’s go time. We’re out in the fields cutting flowers, shipping flowers, and then once we get over that, then the wonderful task of working in the Pacific Northwest, October and November, digging the plants out of the ground, storing them, getting them ready for winter, is a race against that freeze. Frost is one thing. With that freeze comes and if you didn’t get it out of the ground before then, that’s it. Game over.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’ll kill the tuber.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. Kill the tuber and any of the other plants that you were trying to grab.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, explain that with dahlias, because that’s kind of your main thing. That’s your claim to fame. You saw the flowers and you saw the tubers. Explain how that works. They’re not like a normal flower that you would grow from seed that people are used to. They have a tuber, kind of like a potato, that’s in the ground and then you save it for the next year. Not really like bulbs. Related I guess, sort of, but-

Steve Pabody:
Perhaps distant cousins. So the dahlia is originally a Central American flower. That’s another reason why we love Central American flower farmers, because they gave us the dahlia. So it was imported to Europe as a food crop, and then, right, next-

Dillon Honcoop:
They ate the tubers?

Steve Pabody:
You can eat the tubers. They’re a little fibrous and they don’t taste as good as those Idaho golds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I would imagine.

Steve Pabody:
So quickly, people said, “This is way too much work to get something subpar to a potato, but the flowers are amazing.” So then they started making it to the gardens. I don’t know how long they’ve been really popular. They seem to have recently got a surge, probably in part to Floret, maybe some other big names out there. But when we first started growing them, we were just growing them just for the cuts, and now we grow them for all of the above. We grow them for the cuts, for the tubers, and then we’re doing some breeding, just a little bit.

Steve Pabody:
But yeah, in the spring, around here with this climate, we usually tell people to go for around Mother’s Day, you want to get your tubers in the ground, and then just wait. So it warms up, they start popping out, and they’ll flower all the way until … if they’re cared for. If you keep water on them, keep them fed, and you keep cutting them. Believe it or not, if you stop cutting the dahlias, it doesn’t flower as much because it starts putting seed pods. It signals for the plant that it’s going to reproduce that way. So it’ll reproduce with seeds and it’ll also reproduce with tubers. So while you’re seeing those seed pods up top, it’s producing tubers down below. And what comes out of the seed is not going to be the same flower that formed that seed pod. There’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a cross, right?

Steve Pabody:
Well, yes. And, I don’t know, just the way the dahlia’s made, a seed doesn’t come true. Sometimes it’ll be very close. It’ll have the same color, maybe even the same form factor, but it’s never the same flower. The tubers, however, are exactly the same. So we bring those up, like I said, in October. Dig them up and store them and then divide them and sell some of them and plant some of them and do it all again. Rinse, sleep, repeat. I can’t ever remember how that thing goes, but yeah, we do a lot of that around here.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s you and your wife and then you have two kids?

Steve Pabody:
Two kids, yes. Fortunately, my son is getting old enough now that I can put him on the mower and say, “All right, go put in your couple hours of mowing.” And he has joined the harvest crew for some of that. It’s just such a mad rush, because there’s that window where you can harvest the flowers and have a pristine product that once it gets to be about 10:00 in the morning, that window is done.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. We’ve tried starting really early, but with our crew, we generally don’t start before 6:00. So 6:00 to 10:00 is when we’re all hands on deck.

Dillon Honcoop:
Go, go, go, go.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. And of course, Sarah and I sometimes will be out here as soon as we can start to see, and then take a little break for the heat of the day and just do other stuff, or we weed. That never seems to stop around here. Mow, tie up flowers and get our stuff straightened up, and then in the cool of the evening, a lot of times we’re coming back out to harvest more flowers. So yeah, that’s why we have so many hands on deck, and so my son’s gotten incorporated into that. My daughter cuts flowers, but generally not that we’re going to resell. She loves to design and she’s got four or five arrangements in her bedroom right now, so it’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, isn’t she part of the name of the farm, too?

Steve Pabody:
She is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did Triple Wren come from? Or how did-

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, so, you got to be in the circle of trust to know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, well.

Steve Pabody:
In the very beginning when we realized, “Hey, this farming, it really is hard work. We got to have a plan. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to go all in.” And so we decided, well, what motivation do we need to get out of bed at 5:00 in the morning? Okay, well, we can build something for our kids. Maybe they don’t want to go into agriculture. I’m not sure. But we want to at least give them the opportunity. So our stewardship of the land, our stewardship of our opportunity, all that went into why we initially started doing this, and we thought, “What’s a cool name?” Well, my son is Steven George Pabody, III, so there’s the triple. And my daughter’s name is Chloe Wren, so there’s the Wren. Triple Wren Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
Got it.

Steve Pabody:
So with any luck-

Dillon Honcoop:
It was named after your children.

Steve Pabody:
It is, yeah. Like I said …

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s cool.

Steve Pabody:
… something’s got to get you out of bed in the morning and keep you going until midnight at night sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I would say, from what I’ve seen of what you guys do, part of your success has to do with how you’ve branded yourself, too. People recognize who you are. You stand for something. Well, talk about that. How did that come about? I mean, you explained how the name came about. How did you do the branding? How big of a role has that played in how you have put this together?

Steve Pabody:
Well, I think that with the popularity of social media, people are looking for stuff out there that they connect with. Everybody loves flowers. So at the very beginning, we just started really picking up on the need to have good photography of the flowers we grow. I’m always reminded of this, especially here in Whatcom County. There’s some incredible farmers here. There’s some incredible growers of flowers, and I’m surprised nearly every year, I learn of another incredible farmer or incredible grower, but nobody knows about them. The people that know about them have met them or know somebody who knows them, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I’m doing this podcast, because I want to go and get to know these people and allow a lot of other people to join in and also get to know them and know their heart for what they’re doing.

Steve Pabody:
That’s a very lofty goal. That’s great. So yeah, we realized very quickly that we needed to present ourselves on social media. And even though most farmers don’t want to take the time to put content up, whether that’s just pictures and a funny picture about what the cow is doing that day, like Erica. She’s doing a great job with this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Erica DeWaard, yeah. Farmer Girl.

Steve Pabody:
Oh, she’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Episode three of the podcast.

Steve Pabody:
Oh, is she?

Dillon Honcoop:
My third interview …

Steve Pabody:
I-

Dillon Honcoop:
… on Real Food Real People. You can go back in the archives and look at it.

Steve Pabody:
I don’t know if I heard that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or listen to it, I guess.

Steve Pabody:
I’ve heard most of yours, but I might have missed that one. So sorry, Erica. I’ll go immediately today and listen to your episode. SO yeah, I mean, just that connection. It really is just giving people a window into what you’re doing. We try not to put pictures of us digging the dahlias in October when everybody’s fingers are numb and it’s nasty outside and you’re just having to find joy from inside to keep-

Dillon Honcoop:
But isn’t that reality?

Steve Pabody:
That is, and we do post those occasionally. But mostly what we post is, “Hey, do this kind of hard labor and look what it’s going to do.” And the flowers and the beautiful side of it, and trying not to gloss over the negatives. Because it doesn’t matter what you do in life. There’s parts of that that you’re not going to like. If I was an accountant, it would be most of that job. But there’s some incredible things about an accountant’s job. I love accountants. So this is the highlight of what we do, is you see the finished product or you get to taste the produce or the blueberries, or you get to have that perfect, warty, twisted pumpkin on your front porch that I grew.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s right, you grow the pumpkins, too, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, we got a pumpkin patch in the fall. But yeah, if you have the opportunity to come to a farm, you get that window. But then you kind of say, “Hey, remember when we went to Triple Wren Farm and ran to that dahlia festival that they have? I would like to grow some of those here.” And get on our Instagram or go to our webpage and you can see what flowers are available. It’s just off to the races from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Give us the shameless plug. What’s the web address?

Steve Pabody:
Triplewrenfarms.com.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s easy to remember.

Steve Pabody:
Easy peasy.

Dillon Honcoop:
And-

Steve Pabody:
Farms is plural. That’s the only thing that confuses some people.

Dillon Honcoop:
And @triplewrenfarms, I think, too, is the social media handle.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know, the auto fill thing will come up.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah, perfect. The Facebook, the Instagram. I’m not really posting on Twitter anymore, but all those other platforms we’re trying to get away from and just focus on a couple of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you said earlier to me when we were setting up here, you have a background in IT as well?

Steve Pabody:
Shh, don’t tell anybody that. They’ll call me for their computer problems.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’ll call you for their flowers.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I was in IT for a little while and was basically on upgrading systems, so the hardware side of things. Back before the operating systems were so intuitive and you actually had to tell them where to go to access the hardware pieces or to the system boards or to the memory, back when you had to get down and dirty with that stuff. Now you just go buy it from the store, plug it in, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And it works.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The wizards that come now are …

Dillon Honcoop:

[inaudible 00:34:28]

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I saw you messing around trying to get everything to sync up. So yeah, I have a little background in that, but don’t really delve into that too much these days.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like dealing with stress on the farm? Because you come from a different background, not from farming, so you’ve experienced stress in different realms, doing IT and doing stuff like dealing with camps and being like a minister, and now farming. They all have their own kinds of stress. How do you compare all those, and what have you learned through that journey how to deal with that?

Steve Pabody:
I’m not quite sure how to answer that. The stresses are different, right? And sometimes it may be a guilty pleasure of mine to just get out in the fields and just weed dahlias or get on the tractor and just mow.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let the stress go, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Right. When you’re dealing with people, you just have to be a lot more observant because everybody’s problems aren’t the same. Everybody’s recollection of the truth isn’t the same, and so everything’s so different, especially in our climate today. Just so many things to think about and consider, and just to be gracious with. I think that maybe part of the blessing of having those different stress levels is I realize a crop failure is not that big a deal. I mean, it certainly could alter my future. It will alter my future, let me just clarify that. And it may inform what we do next year, but spring is coming. There’s a new season on the horizon. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve dealt with more stressful things than that in the past, gives you a different perspective.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. People dealing with interpersonal problems or with pressures that are life altering, stakes are so much higher when you’re dealing with that. As opposed to this, we’re going to get another shot next year to do it all again. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Whether that’s a good or bad thing, it’s going to happen, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Pros and cons, you put in 10 acres of raspberries and lose those raspberries, it takes you a while to recover. Or some of our longer term crops. If we mess up with those, the stakes are higher. But at the end of the day, we can recover from those. And so with all of the pressures that’s going on and with all of the uncertainty in our society right now, in the world, those are much more monumentous as opposed to, “Where am I going to sell my flowers?” I’m concerned that I can sell all my flowers. And not to backtrack, but all of our planning this last January was for events, overnight retreats. We got these cute little … I say cute like I know what cute means. But according to my wife, it’s this cute little setup. I just look at it as a lot of extra extremity, lights and twinkle lights and lanterns.

Dillon Honcoop:
We won’t tell her that you think that.

Steve Pabody:
Hopefully she won’t listen to this. That’s the key. No, but she spent a lot of time and a lot of effort making them just feel nice and romantic and homey, and you get into these little tents, so that’s what you can do for overnight. And then in conjunction with that, having some different focuses in our workshops or we do farmer training. We had a dahlia camp set up for this year, trying to still pull that off in a different kind of way. And all of that kind of has changed. So those kind of stresses and those kind of pressures are related to what’s going on right now, but yeah, they’re manageable. They’re manageable. Because at the end of the day, you got to get out here, you got to keep your plants alive, manage everything, and then you just look at the flowers, listen to the rooster crow in the background, go out and feed the hogs, feed the animals, everything’s good again.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you made the decision to go into this farming thing, did you go full time with it right away? Or were you still part time, that was a side hustle, and then it-

Steve Pabody:
Yes. For me, it was unusual because somebody asked me to manage their property. So they did that. Again, that covered the land. I didn’t have to make a land payment. I didn’t have to worry about rent because I was living in their house. But I was also working off farm, like I think most farmers actually do. So working off farm, and then the flowers kind of, like I said, started as just an idea my wife had about what to do or just an experiment she was doing that was successful. So then what happened is we kept growing and I would work on it before work and after work. It just got so big so fast that I stopped my off-farm employment and then just jumped in both feet, full steam ahead.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Steve Pabody:
It probably should have been. Again, not paying attention to the sage advice that I was being given. “Don’t quit your day job.” But we just were running into so many opportunities so quickly that it wasn’t that scary because I was … I came to the point to where we had more opportunity than we had product, and so what we needed was to grow more flowers. So once we started doing that, then the income came in, at least for a little while.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had a moment where you’re like, “Why did I do this?” Where you’re not sure if you’re going to make it? I know farmers kind of ride that rollercoaster where things are great and then they go through the valleys where things are like, “I’m not sure if this is going to work.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, I think most small farmers anyways probably are there every year and they go, “Okay, so we-“

Dillon Honcoop:
Big farmers, believe it or not, too.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, probably now, especially. I know some dairy guys that are just like, “We gave away more milk in the scariest times than …” Years to recover that. Yeah, so sometimes it’s good to be a small farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Double-edged sword.

Steve Pabody:
Because 2,400 head of milking cows don’t stop producing milk and don’t stop eating.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you can’t wait and have them produce milk when it’s worth more.

Steve Pabody:
Right, yeah. “We’ll wait until everything gets back to normal and then we’ll start milking again.” Yeah, no, just unfortunately that’s not reality.

Dillon Honcoop:
So with COVID, it sounds like you guys are managing, even though it’s probably hurt the bottom line pretty badly.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Again, I think the thing about farming is not only is there the science of growing and just everything that has to do with that, but there’s also a farmer has to, at some degree, be a entrepreneur or a businessman. I think the key to entrepreneurship is flexibility. Seeing an opportunity, seeing a hole in the market, and filling it. “Nobody grows good sweet corn. Okay, I’m going to grow sweet corn. We don’t have a good beef producer.” And I know we have great producers here in Washington-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re just saying hypothetical.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, hypothetically. Nobody’s growing ostrich in Whatcom County, so that’s a great thing for somebody to be in if there’s a market for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, true.

Steve Pabody:
Not really sure that that would be my first choice, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
I thought there was somebody who did that or does that, a [crosstalk 00:41:46]

Steve Pabody:
I probably offended somebody. They’re like, “What? I got all these ostrich.” So if you grow ostrich, let me know. I’ll get some ostrich from you. Yeah, so the aspect of having to shift and to pivot I think is kind of in the whole … That’s what you sign up for. Sometimes [crosstalk 00:42:04]

Dillon Honcoop:
Helps with an annual crop, too. It’s easier than a perennial crop, like you were talking about.

Steve Pabody:
It is. Yeah. And fortunately, we have plenty of annuals, but we have some perennials that kind of … It helps, too, with that. So you get a infestation of something and it knocks out one crop and, “Okay, well, we do still have blueberries. We do still have roses and hydrangeas and all the other stuff.”

Steve Pabody:
But in answer to your question, I think just really trying to filter everything that we know is happening and realizing where the potential is. And then it’s kind of shifting. I got a good friend down in Seattle and his whole business, his whole … And I don’t know how many people he’s got working for him, but he’s a wedding … What does he call himself? He does everything. He’ll do the catering, he’ll do the planning, he’ll do the flowers, he’ll set up the whole venue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, he’s a little bit amazing, I think. But when this whole thing happened, of course all of his events just said, “Nope, we’re not going to do them.” And so he’s just doing something different until he can do weddings again, because that’s what he really loves to do. He loves to choose the linens and everything, make it just perfect for you. And so in the meantime, he did a pop-up shop. He was doing little arrangements with some accents for your home décor, and I thought, “Man, there’s nothing that guy can’t do.” But he shifted because he obviously wants to take care of his employees and feed his family, and he put too much time and effort into his business to just watch it fly away, so he did something different and it’s working. And he’ll probably … well, not probably. I know he’s anxious to get back into the wedding game.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. As, I would guess, your wife probably is, too.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes. There’s a little bit of sadness that so many of our weddings canceled and more of them postponed. But again, it just gives us the opportunity to just do something different in the meantime. Pretty convinced that they’re not going to go away. People are still going to get married and they’re still going to want to have a nice spread with flowers. And so I know that’ll come back eventually. It may be different and we’ll pivot in accordance and meet what people need when it starts to run again.

Dillon Honcoop:
Pivot.

Steve Pabody:
Pivot.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the word of the day.

Steve Pabody:
There you go. I love that word. Probably use it too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the scariest moment in this whole journey?

Steve Pabody:
Well, you might be referring to my health episode.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, or anything else that … But I know that you almost died at one point.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. According to my nurse, I died several times. He just kept bringing me back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Well, yeah. I was-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
I didn’t realize this until high school, but I was born with a heart defect and I didn’t discover it until I wanted to go out for football and they said, “You have to have a physical.” And so I did and the doctor said, “Oh, you got a heart murmur,” and I said, “What does that mean?” He goes, “Don’t worry about it. It’s stunted your growth and caused severe mental retardation, but other than that, you’re good.”

Dillon Honcoop:
He actually said that to you?

Steve Pabody:
He did. He was a football doctor, man. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
But he was just trying to rattle your cage?

Steve Pabody:
Football doctors are not known for their bedside manners. As a matter of fact, completely opposite, right? He was a great football doctor.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got to know your audience when you say something like that. I know there are some kids who would be totally crushed.

Steve Pabody:
NBA.

Dillon Honcoop:
But apparently you were okay with it. You got that he was joking.

Steve Pabody:
I understood that, yes. Not the smartest guy in the room, but eventually things trickle down and I do perceive the intended jests. So yeah, I didn’t really worry about it. Then I got to college. After a couple of years, they looked at me again and they said, “This has gotten a lot worse. You should consider having surgery.” And I said, “Okay.” And they said, “Actually, you’re going to have to have surgery eventually because this is not going to resolve itself,” just in the short amount of time that they had done some tests when I was in high school to when I was a junior in college. And so the ironic thing is I left college and I went to a youth camp where I was doing manual labor, and my health increased. I was working hard every day and [crosstalk 00:46:17]

Dillon Honcoop:
So you had been getting checked because your health wasn’t doing well? You were what, fatigued or something?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, there was a flu that went on at the college that I went to and a third of the college got sick with this flu, so I was in the … they had their little on-campus hospital. And they said, “Hey, we hear something weird going on with your heart.” I’m like, “Oh yeah.” I said very arrogantly, “Wow, you’re a pretty good doctor because not everybody catches that heart murmur.” And she says, “Well, my specialty is cardiovascular health, so yeah, I’m going to catch any flutter that you have.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
So when she looked at my echocardiogram, the test that they had done, she said, “I want you to have another one because this sounds significant.” And then thankfully, she said, “No, this is a big deal for you.” So again, we took it really serious and I limited all my physical activity and my health actually started to decline. They gave me a key to the elevator in the student building so I could ride the elevator to the third floor instead of walk up the steps. And I was in the dormitories on the third floor as well, and they moved me to the first floor so I didn’t have to use the steps. And all of that stuff affected me negatively when I stopped doing it. So after college, I went to a youth camp. I maybe a bit naively just through caution to the wind and said, “I’m going to jump here because this is awesome fun.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you start using your body and you get that energy back.

Steve Pabody:
I did. I did, and I started getting healthy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re probably thinking, “I’m fine.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, that’s right. “I’m going to walk it off,” right? Isn’t that what all guys say? “Just let me walk it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that’s true.

Steve Pabody:
So that worked for … Well, it’s been a couple years since I’ve been in college, I’ll be honest with you. But now in my 40s and farming, things are going well for a while-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you still hadn’t done anything with it.

Steve Pabody:
No. And I am originally from the East Coast, so I was under a cardiologist’s care there and when I moved out here, I conveniently didn’t find one out here for a couple of years.

Dillon Honcoop:
I see what’s going on.

Steve Pabody:
Much to my wife’s chagrin. Finally, sense prevailed and she convinced me to go to a local cardiologist and they said, “Okay, well, you’re doing manual labor and you look good, so I think we just look at it.” And I said, “Well, you think I can get away from surgery?” My cardiologist is Dr. Tom Oliver and he said, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re going to go under the knife for sure. But you’re the best judge of when we need to do that.” And so just yearly checkups. And then 2017 came around. We got this farm that we’re on in 2016. Didn’t really get settled on it until 2017, but that’s when things really started to kick off and we expanded drastically. But then my health started declining and I didn’t understand, hey, it’s getting harder and harder to do what was already kind of difficult.

Steve Pabody:
Then in 2018, it really started to plummet, and so then we had a surgery scheduled. I went in, went through surgery fine and was actually walking right after surgery, and the doctor told me … My surgeon said, “You’re going to be out of here in a couple of days. This is amazing.” He says, “You’re walking, this is a good sign. Most people, it takes them a good half a week to a week to get out of the hospital after open heart, but yeah, you can maybe … Let’s see if you can do it in three days, four days.” And I’m like, “All right, you’re on.” Then my heart rebelled.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is while you’re still at the hospital?

Steve Pabody:
Yes, fortunately. Fortunately, yeah. I had another day, then I just real lethargic and thinking, “What’s going on?” My heart was beating real fast and then it would slow down and it was having trouble regulating. The surgery was pretty extensive. They replaced my entire aortic root and a couple of valves. While they were in there, they did a couple of other things that are helpful they wouldn’t normally do unless they already have you opened up. But they’re like, “Hey, while you’re open, let’s go ahead and put a clamp here and let’s put a safeguard here.” And so, great. I can’t say enough good things about my cardiologists over at North Cascade Cardiology with PeaceHealth.

Steve Pabody:
But when things started to come to a head, the heart would beat about three times what it was supposed to and then it would drop down. It was dropping down into the 30s and the 20s beats per minute, so if you know anything about your heartbeat, that’s not good. Even for super athletes, 30 beats per minute is too slow. So then it just gave out. Fortunately, my nurse … shout out to Aaron. Thank you very much, Aaron. He kind of foresaw that things were going south fast and so he got me all hooked up to this special machine that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your heart stopped then while he was hooking you up, or what?

Steve Pabody:
No, he was quicker than that. He-

Dillon Honcoop:
He knew that something was going to happen and that he needed to hook you up.

Steve Pabody:
He said, “I think you don’t need this, but just so that the doctor knows that I’m thinking forward, I’m going to put these things on you.” So he put those pads on me, strapped them on, got me all-

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s probably saying that, but inside he’s like, “This is not looking good with this guy.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. He’s probably saying, “I’m about to lose this guy.” So we’re still joking around, having a good time, and I was on, obviously, a lot of …

Dillon Honcoop:
Painkillers.

Steve Pabody:
… opiates, so I was having a good time no matter what. But then, yeah, then it just started dropping, dropping, dropping, and then we got down to 20 beats a minute and he said, “If it goes below this, I’m giving him the needle,” the epinephrine, I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
It’s amazing how much of the stuff that you remember when you’re right in the middle of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Steve Pabody:
Or don’t remember, or refresh. But yeah, he had to give me that shot a couple of times and it didn’t work and then the heart just stopped. So they brought me back and then they put me on that external pacemaker and it kept shocking me when my heart would stop beating, and so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your heart stopped beating more than once.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Well, your heart beats how many times a minute, hopefully in the 60s and 70s.

Dillon Honcoop:

[crosstalk 00:52:16]

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And so when it beats slower than that, it’s a problem. But then when it stops beating, it’s a serious problem. So yeah, he put me on that very nice machine that causes a little bit of pain, but the reward is worth it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically it’s hooked up to you but it’s like giving you the paddles that you hear about in the ambulance kind of thing.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, just not with a full charge, right, because my heart just needed a little bit of encouragement after they got me going again. Then they immediately took me to surgery and put a pacemaker in to keep that thing going.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many times did your heart stop?

Steve Pabody:
I don’t know. I know every time it got below a certain amount, that machine took over and gave me a charge, so then it would beat again faster. So I think that’s the main thing, is that thing kept my heart up to where I was getting enough oxygen, so more mental retardation wasn’t kicking in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. See, that’s like knocking on death’s door, if your heart is continually stopping. What did they find out? How did they fix it?

Steve Pabody:
In the words of my cardiologist, “Sometimes your heart just throws a hissy fit after we go in and touch it.” So, I mean, the medicine … A number of the doctors told me this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
They said, “We call it practicing medicine for a reason.”

Dillon Honcoop:
No way.

Steve Pabody:
As much as they know, there’s always a loop, there’s always something unexpected. So everything looked like it was going smooth. I thought I was recovering smooth. A small part of me said no. So yeah, I’m thankful for the care I got at the hospital and the extra mile that the nursing staff and the doctors gave me, and here we are, ready to do it again.

Dillon Honcoop:
They saved your life.

Steve Pabody:
I think so. I think several times, probably.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
The good news is, those nurses, I told them, I said, “You guys saved my life and I can’t really return the favor, but you get free blueberries for life. Free flowers for life.” So it’s been a pretty joyful reunion to have some of my nurses come back out here and a couple of my doctors visit me during season and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Amazing.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I’m able to send them home with honey from my hives, gourds, zucchinis, produce, flowers, blueberries. “Take it. Take it all.” Eggs.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

Steve Pabody:
Life is sweet, especially when you almost didn’t have it. So it makes you thankful and it makes the stresses and the plates that you have to juggle almost manageable.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s quite the story. How does that change what your future’s going to look like, what you end up doing next year, 10 years down the road, whatever your plan is with this farm?

Steve Pabody:
Well, the goal is to continue to grow it to where it’s sustainable. Not only the fertility in the soil so that it can sustain more growth and different crops, but on the business side that it’s paying for itself and it gets to a … Our plans are to grow it to where we can have more than one full-time person, or with Sarah and I, more than just a couple of us full time so that we have opportunity to do other stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like take a week off and go on vacation?

Steve Pabody:
Hey, let’s not get crazy here. We do this because we love it. We don’t want to go away from it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Every farmer I talk to on this podcast, “What’s a vacation? What are you talking about?”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, from midnight to 4:00 in the morning, that’s my vacation every day. I take one every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh man.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and we’re trying real hard to pour ourselves into our kids, and when you are pulling long hours, sometimes that kind of gets out of balance. So having the ability to take a day and do something fun with your kids, or my son is into archery, so I’ve told him for a couple of weeks now, “Hey, let’s build a target, a better stand for you.” So yeah, I’ve got the wood but I haven’t assembled it yet. So getting to a stage to where we’re focusing on what’s really important for our future, for our kids’ future. At the same time, continuing to enjoy the benefit of capitalism. We can build a business that provides for our livelihood and others, and really does something impactful on our community. There’s nowhere else in Whatcom County that you can come and see 30,000 flowering plants that I … Well, excuse me. Let me take that back, because I guess everybody that has vegetables here, they’re always flowering, right? Just maybe not quite as beautiful as the flowers that I have.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your story and having me out here to the farm. I mean, this is amazing out here. And what you guys are doing is really, really cool. But the story is the best part, that journey that you guys have been on to get where you are. Really, really cool stuff.

Steve Pabody:
Well, thanks. I appreciate you having me on and it’s always good to talk with you.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
It was pretty cool to record that episode surrounded by flowers in the middle of the field. We’re going to work on getting the full video of it up on YouTube. Sure would appreciate if you would subscribe to our YouTube channel as well. Thank you again for being here on the Real Food Real People Podcast and supporting us by sharing our content far and wide to help grow the circle of those of us who are getting to know the real people behind our food. Find us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and of course check out realfoodrealpeople.org.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org. And by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Case VanderMeulen | #034 08/03/2020

He grew up in Europe on a small family dairy, but he now runs a large dairy in Eastern Washington. Meet Case VanderMeulen, and hear his story of growth as he demystifies how large dairy farms really work.

Transcript

Case VanderMeulen:
I grew up in Holland. My family had a dairy farm, but my older brother, he took over the family farm and there was no room for two incomes after the quota system came in in Europe. So I had to go do something different.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are big dairy farms bad? It’s been a controversial issue for some people, and so I wanted to talk with someone who runs a big dairy farm. He’s also someone who has run a small dairy farm and not just in the United States. Case VanderMeulen, his dairy is Coulee Flats Dairy in Mesa, Washington and he grew up in the Netherlands. This week, he shares his story with us of growing up in Europe on a small family dairy, coming to the U.S. then and starting his own small dairy. And then growing it over the years to a large dairy.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ll find out exactly how he runs his operation. He gets into a lot of the specific details of how he manages the cows and his employees that keep this whole thing working. Fascinating conversation, lot of cool stuff. Thank you for joining us this week. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast documenting my continuing journeys around Washington state to get to know the real people producing food here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why are you so passionate about producing food for people and producing milk and dairy products?

Case VanderMeulen:
Because that’s what I grew up in. I grew up in Holland. My family had a dairy farm, but my older brother, oldest, he took over the family farm and there was no room for two incomes after the quota system came in in Europe. So I had to go do something different. I went on a couple of exchange programs, once to Canada and once to Washington on the West side. Then after a couple of years, later after I come back, I decided I’m going to move to the U.S. permanently because that’s always interested me.

Case VanderMeulen:
So I went and worked in California for a couple of two-and-a-half years, and then started a little dairy farm in Grandview, Washington. It’s a dedication, I guess, it’s just I love it. And once I got going, it’s like, why not? Just keep going and… Because I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you love about it? What’s it like being a dairy farmer? And what are the things that you really love?

Case VanderMeulen:
The growing part and building a system that works really well for treating cows well and treating employees well. So all the pieces fall in place. It never goes by itself, but it’s just like you’re building something, and it turns out nice, and you’re proud. So then you go onto the next thing because it feels good. Second, we have a really… We produce a really good wholesome food from products that the cows can eat and digest, but we humans won’t be able to digest.

Case VanderMeulen:
So cows is definitely what they call upcycling. That really feels good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about how your dairy works. In a way it has to be a system because there’s a lot of people involved, animals, fields, all this stuff has to work together to have milk come out of here at the end of the day. How does it work?

Case VanderMeulen:
It works, start off most important one, take care of the cows. There’s the old saying, “If you take care of the cows, they’ll take care of you.” Because those ladies are like athletes. They produce a lot of milk, and we got to keep them comfortable. When you keep him comfortable, then they will flourish just like humans or all other living beings. Keep them comfortable-

Dillon Honcoop:
How can you tell if a cow is comfortable?

Case VanderMeulen:
When you see her laying out there, chewing her cud or just grunting. That is just a sign that a cow is really comfortable. A cow should be doing one of three things; eat, lay down chew her cud, or be in milked in a parlor delivering her payload, so to speak, if you want to call it that way. So it all revolves around the cows. Cows are creatures of habit, so they like to have everything the same every day, a little bit like humans and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Creatures of routine.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep, routine. Routine day in, day out, try to make it the same every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
My grandpa was a dairy farmer. Actually, both of my grandpas were dairy farmers.

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
My dad’s dad, he always said his cows were so stuck on routine that they didn’t even like it if he wore a different hat when he milked them.

Case VanderMeulen:
I never wear a hat, so my girls are a little bit short on that, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and he was very big on certain music too because-

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh, really?

Dillon Honcoop:
… he liked to listen to classic country-

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
… especially Hank Williams while he milked. And he claimed that that’s what they liked the best.

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s an interaction as far as the systems or whatever you want to call it. And dairy is the interaction between people and cows and everything around it. And obviously it takes a lot of equipment to get a lot of cows fed. And of course, the equipment needs to be in good shape, so a lot of maintenance and repairs. Then obviously, those cows eat a lot of feed, so we need to make sure we have lots of feed on hand and all the ingredients, and the place to make sure that we can make the rations for the cows the same every day.

Case VanderMeulen:
Again, creature of habit, she likes it that her food is the same every day. There’s like 10 to 15 different ingredients that we feed to the cows in the rations and we like to keep them proportioned the same every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kinds of things are you feeding them?

Case VanderMeulen:
First the foragers. Those are the building blocks, so to speak, because a rumen needs forage. Meaning a forage is a plant-based with fiber. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rumen being the cow’s stomach, that’s what they need for their-

Case VanderMeulen:
To keep the rumen healthy because the rumen actually feeds the cow. Need the forages, corn silage, alfalfa hay, alfalfa silage, triticale silage. Then the grains. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot of feed that we’re feeding to the cows, those are byproducts of other feeds, so to speak like soybean meal. That is what’s left over after they get the oil out of the soybeans. Canola meal, same thing, after they get the oil out of the canola for the canola meal that we cook with.

Case VanderMeulen:
And cotton seed, that’s after to take the cotton off the little seed, and the seed is really, really potent because it’s got a lot of fat in it, and it’s high in protein. And it’s got fiber in it because of some of the lint still on the seed.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the cows like that, those different ingredients?

Case VanderMeulen:
We mix them all together, so it like… We have like big, giant blenders where everything goes in and it comes out mixed. So every bite is the same for every cow every day. The goal.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do they get to eat?

Case VanderMeulen:
These cows, they eat over 100 pounds of feed per day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that like something they choose how much they eat or?

Case VanderMeulen:
They can eat as much as they want. We just make sure that it’s there when they come and eat and they can come and go as they please.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then they probably drink a lot of water.

Case VanderMeulen:
And they drink a lot of water, probably about 30 to 50 gallons per cow, per day, somewhere within-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
… that range. And that’s actually the most important ingredient. Without it, nothing would happen of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
All this stuff that you feed them, where does that come from? The forages, the grains. I guess you talked about some of these byproducts that would probably what? Otherwise be waste?

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the forage is, do you guys grow that?

Case VanderMeulen:
We grow some of those ourselves, and then also a bunch of my neighboring row crop farmers, I’ll buy feed from them or we’ll grow it ourselves. Then harvest it and store it, and then feed it the rest of the year. That takes a lot of acres to feed all these cows. Then the grains, the byproducts I was talking about, the dry ones like soybean meals come in more from the Midwest, canola meal is coming from Canada, cotton seeds coming from the South or the Southwest, and they all arrive by train.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then from there, they’re going to be hauled on trucks going to the different dairy producers and dairy farms. Then some of the other byproducts I didn’t talk about like potato waste, that goes from the local potato plants after they make French fries. So everything is being utilized and being fed to these cows. So they have the same feed every day, so they can do their thing, so to speak. Meaning produce lots of milk and be comfortable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically the cows hang out, eat, and drink and get milked.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise they’re just chilling out.

Case VanderMeulen:
They’re chilling out. We milk them three times a day, and then like now, it’s really hot out. We have shade buildings where they can get in the shade, they can get cooled with sprinklers, where they eat. When they come into the parlor, they get sprinkled, so they get nice and wet. It’s just exactly like when you come out of the pool and-

Dillon Honcoop:
The misters are going.

Case VanderMeulen:
And the misters are going, or just out of the pool and you’re wet, then it’s called the evaporative cooling. It’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the milking process? How does that work?

Case VanderMeulen:
All the cows are in groups, and then we bring a whole group into the parlor. Then they get milked, then they get into the parlor, into the milking stalls where they get milked. Then we disinfect the teats, get them prepared, attached to the machine. Then after she’s done milking, the machine will come off automatically. Then we apply more disinfectant on the teats, and then the cows go out, and then go back and eat. Three times a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Three times a day.

Case VanderMeulen:
And we’re milking 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how long does that process take for the cow? How long are they in there being milked?

Case VanderMeulen:
About 10 minutes per side, so to speak. We have the milking parlors, the one of them is like 50 stalls on each side. So then if it’s 10 minutes, if we do six turns, so to speak, then we milk about 100 cows an hour.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they only have to hang out there for 10, 15, 20 minutes?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. Of course, they’re big groups, so it takes about 30, 40 minutes per group to be… Yeah, about 40 minutes from the time they go into the parlor until that whole pen is done and they all go back to the corral where they can hang out and eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
So at most, the actual milking time for a cow in a given day is 30, 45 minute when you add up the three milkings?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
That they’re actually having [crosstalk 00:14:00]-

Case VanderMeulen:
That they’re actually being milked. That’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Now, the cows in the group that go to the parlor first obviously spend the least amount of time in the parlor or in the building, so to speak. But then the ones last the longest, of course, so altogether three times 40 minutes is two hours basically for the cows who are milked last out of the group.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that’s it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dairy farming in a nutshell.

Case VanderMeulen:
And it goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
The cows can’t really take a day off per se, other than when they’re getting ready to have a calf.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that right?

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s correct. The gestation period for a cow is nine months, pretty much the same as humans, which is interesting. People don’t think about this very much, but a milk cow is pregnant most of her life because it takes nine months. Then if we’d like to have a calf every year, so that means in a year, there’s only three months out of the year that she’s not pregnant. So the cycle is so that calf gets born, it takes about two years to get her full grown.

Case VanderMeulen:
So at about 13 to 14 months of age, we breed them for the first time. And nine months later, they’re going to have their first baby, and that’s when her milking career starts. Then within about two months after she had a calf, she will be bred again and hopefully get pregnant. So then she can have another calf, 12 months later after she had the first one. Then about 45 days before she’s going to have a calf, we actually, what we call, we dry her off. So that means we quit milking her, and that’s her vacation time for a little while.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then she can regenerate, and recoup, and start for the next cycle. That’s just how it goes and every day or so we’ll have 30 to 40 calves a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens to all those calves? What do you do with them?

Case VanderMeulen:
We raise the heifer calves to be the replacements for the cows that leave the facility, because at some point in time, they are getting older, and then they have to have a change of career, so to speak. Then the bull calves, they-

Dillon Honcoop:
So heifer calves being a female-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
The bulls being the boys.

Case VanderMeulen:
That is correct. That is correct. The bulls, they get picked up… Yeah, always get picked up daily. Then they go to a calf ranch and they’re being raised, and then they’re going to go eventually to a feedlot.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they’re beef.

Case VanderMeulen:
For beef. There’s two products that we produce, is basically milk and beef. Then the heifer calves, the female calves that stay here, we’ll raise them in… They’ll raise them and we’ll have them on milk for two months. Then those calves after two months will then, what we call, they get weaned, meaning we don’t feed them milk anymore.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then they go in different groups. Then as they get older, they’ll get different kinds of feeds to optimize their growth for healthy strong bodies and digestive system so they can be good, healthy mamas for the next generation, so to speak.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is this whole process than when you grew up in Europe?

Case VanderMeulen:
The basics are the same, but it’s just the scale is so significantly different. At my family farm, they were milking about 100 cows, and those cows would go in the pasture in the summertime. In the winter time, they would be in the barn, so to speak, and we did all the work ourselves. Here with milking several thousand cows, we have to have a lot of employees help us, otherwise we couldn’t get it done.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many employees do you have to make it work?

Case VanderMeulen:
About 85 altogether, full time employees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how many cows do you have?

Case VanderMeulen:
We’re milking about 7,000 cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Those are the milk cows. Then we have another 800 to 1,000, what we call it the dry cows, the cows that are on vacation, so to speak. Then all the replacement heifers, which is a good all about 12,000 or so.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’ve lived the small dairy life, and now the large dairy life.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why so big? Some people say, “Oh, it’s better if a farm is small.” What are the differences in having experienced both?

Case VanderMeulen:
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with big dairy farms. Yeah, it maybe seems not attractive for some people, I guess. But actually when you are bigger, you can specialize more the jobs. We have guys that just… They do nothing but milk for eight hours a day. Then we have guys that only feed calves. Then we also have guys that only feed the cows, so it’s very specialized jobs. Therefore you can really train them, train the guys well and they can do a really, really good job.

Case VanderMeulen:
Instead of if you had to have, let’s say you milk 200 cows and you have to have two or three employees. Those three employees needed to do everything and you need to train them on everything. So that makes it a lot more difficult. That doesn’t only count for the employees, but that counts for all systems, so you can really fine tune things much better, and therefore be very, very efficient from a resource perspective.

Case VanderMeulen:
Because we use a lot of resources, water, feed, land of course to grow crops, fertilizer… No, not actually fertilizer, but the manure we use as fertilizer because we utilize everything. We don’t waste nothing.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were growing up in Europe, what was that like? It’s totally a different culture, right?

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s a very different culture, yes. In Holland, there’s thousands and thousands of smaller dairy farms and yeah, it’s… I’m not quite for sure how to explain it, but it’s just a different way of life. However, that is changing rapidly also. The farms in Holland, in Europe are getting much bigger also. For whatever reason, our expenses keep going up, and up, and up just like everybody experiences around the world. Food gets…

Case VanderMeulen:
But the price that we get for the milk and the beef doesn’t seem to change all that much, not even close to comparative from 15, 20 years ago. So we just need to be more efficient in order to stay relevant.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the reasons that farms are getting bigger? Is that the same in Europe as here?

Case VanderMeulen:
Absolutely. I don’t know really what the reason is, but in order to increase efficiency. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what our lives as humans today are about. We need to do more things in less time, and technology helps a lot with that. Talking about technology, we use quite a bit technology on dairy farms today in order to do a better, more precise job. Like what use for the last couple two-and-a-half years now, we actually use… All the cows wear basically a Fitbit around their neck.

Case VanderMeulen:
And every cow is being monitored on how active she is every day, it’s counts steps. Somehow it doesn’t really count steps, but it counts activity. If a cow becomes the less active, the system will alert us and try and tell us, “Hey, there may be something wrong with this cow.” Or if she becomes really active, that usually means she’s in heat, she’s ready to be bred. Then the system will alert us also and tell us, “Hey, this cow is possibly in heat, you better go check her.” And if she is, then we can [inaudible 00:24:32].

Dillon Honcoop:
Technology.

Case VanderMeulen:
Technology. And the beauty of technology is it works 24 hours a day to where if you have people watching cows, they don’t have to work for 24 hours a day. And it’s just becoming harder and harder to get good dedicated people, so it’s a challenge sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key to leading the team like you do here on the farm, having that many employees and making sure that people are on the same page, and happy with where they’re at? You talked about that being one of the values of the system that you’re building is to be good for the employees.

Case VanderMeulen:
Absolutely. It’s the same for all of us, if we don’t like our job, we don’t like the culture or whatever, it’s not fun coming to work, and when it’s not fun coming to work, you’re not going to do your best. It’s as simple as that. So we have all different teams, so to speak. We have a milking team, we have a calf team. We have a herds people team.

Case VanderMeulen:
The herds people are the guys who take care of the cows as far as when the cows need to be moved from one pen to the other, they need to be bred. They need to be taken care of, just basically general animal husbandry. Then we have a feeding team. We have a team in the mechanic shop that maintains and repairs all the equipment.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then we have equipment team that maintains the pens, helps with harvest, all the different things. And each team has a leader obviously. Then we have office team. Then we have also basically a general manager who… Ricardo, he’s the operation manager and he tries to keep the teams coherent and working together. It’s a challenge, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
When you have that many people, it’s always going to be.

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s right. There’s a lot of training involved, meetings and all this stuff. Then before February, once a month, we’d have a caterer come in and provide lunch for the whole team, and just get together and hang out for an hour. Just trying to keep everybody together on the same team.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said you started the first dairy that was yours was in Grandview.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like? And how did that grow and how did you end up here in Mesa?

Case VanderMeulen:
I started in Grandview, 150 cows, doing all the work myself. Those were long days, long, hard days. Did that for about a year, year-and-a-half. Then I grew a little bit and I got one employee to help me milk the cows. Then a couple of years later, a couple of years after that and we moved to a little bit bigger facilities, so we went to about 400 cows. Then a few years later, we bought another facility. Then in 2007, we started building this facility and start milking cows in 2008.

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s been quite a journey. It’s fun. Lots of challenges, but those are there to be overcome.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the hardest challenge to overcome to get to where you are now?

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s just like everybody else probably, but the hardest challenge is when the economy has a downturn and expenses are greater than income. That’s always a challenge, right? So then you got to get creative and try to cut costs and try to do the best he can. Yeah, you get through it. Things are, sometimes they’re really good and sometimes they’re not so good, but that just happens and you just got to keep going.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is the way it was growing up too?

Case VanderMeulen:
I believe so. Yeah. Yeah. I know by my parents and my brother, they had some hard times financially, but giving up is just not part of the game, right? You got to keep going.

Dillon Honcoop:
What keeps you going through those hard times? I know people point to different things, it just gives them hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. That’s a hard question to answer, but I guess the fear of failure is probably one of the biggest ones. Yeah, that’s about the best I can… the way I can explain it, I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said that you were interested in continuing farming, but you couldn’t continue with the family farm-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in the Netherlands.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? How did that work out? What was the issue there?

Case VanderMeulen:
Because it takes at that time 75 cows or so, 75 to 100 cows per family, or takes about that amount of cows to maintain income for one family. And they were milking, I don’t know, 120, 130 cows. Then they got a quota system and everybody had to reduce 20 some percent. Then that basically was only room for one. Since my brother was in a partnership with my dad and the idea was that I was supposed to take over my dad’s half, but then when the quota system came in, then that…

Case VanderMeulen:
My dad actually stepped out of the business at that point in time and my brother took it over and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is he still doing it?

Case VanderMeulen:
My brother does. Yes. Yep, yep. Yeah. He’s milking still about 100 cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you guys swap stories back and forth?

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you compare the different [crosstalk 00:31:25]-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah, absolutely. He’s been here a few times and yeah, he likes it. He’s got his son involved now and he’s hopefully going to take over his business or his dairy and then we’ll see where it goes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad think of all of it?

Case VanderMeulen:
My dad thought it was… Obviously, he was pretty sad that there wasn’t a room for both of us on the farm so we could work together. But yeah, yeah, I guess I had never… I never really asked him if… [inaudible 00:32:12] this is what I did and they supported me 100%.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like coming to America when you first decided you’re moving there?

Case VanderMeulen:
Exciting. I was in my early 20s, so you have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, it’s easy or somewhat easy. Now, once you start building some stuff up and you have something to lose then things change a little bit. I’ve missed home, but I always kept myself plenty busy, so I didn’t have too much time to think about or be home sick.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you been back to the Netherlands much?

Case VanderMeulen:
A few times, yeah. I don’t go that often, but yeah, probably about 10 times or so. 10 to 15 times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family now. What family do you have and are they involved in the farm at all?

Case VanderMeulen:
Like I said, my oldest brother, he took over the family farm and then I got one other brother and two sisters. But none of them are in farming because there was only room for one on the farm. One of them is in the… Her and her husband are in the restaurant, then my other older sister, she’s retired now, but she did a lot of secretarial work. Then my other brother, he actually had a little accident and he’s somewhat handicapped.

Case VanderMeulen:
That was kind of a bad deal. Not kind of, really bad deal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It must’ve been-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… very hard.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you have kids or?

Case VanderMeulen:
I have one son. He’s just turned 16 last week, so yeah, what a riot that is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does he work on the farm at all?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah, ever since the school got closed off, he’s been busy here at the dairy. Try to keep him busy and try to keep him out of trouble.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does he like it? I know I had to work on the farm growing up on a farm, so there were some times I liked it and other times I was like, “No, no, no, I don’t want to do this farming thing.”

Case VanderMeulen:
Obviously there’s lots of jobs he doesn’t like, but I think he says he really wants to become a dairy farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, he does?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. So hopefully, but not going to force him of course. It’s all if he wants to or not. But it’s very, very satisfying to see him here helping me on the farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think? Could he do it? Could he take it over?

Case VanderMeulen:
Time will tell. Time will tell.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, it’s interesting to me talking with you, a first generation to America, Dutch person.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
My family is I think, four or more generations removed, but there’s all these stereotypes with the Dutch and the Dutch farmers. You would have a better perspective on that than me. How much of that is an American stereotype versus reality? I’m thinking about you and your son and like I’m used to the Dutch dads being pretty hard on their sons and pushing them, “You got to work hard, and do a good job, and no slacking off.”

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s probably our biggest challenge. Some days he doesn’t like me very much.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there.

Case VanderMeulen:
But-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the son’s side.

Case VanderMeulen:
As far as stereotypes, I don’t know. On the Western United States, there’s a lot of dairy farmers that are from Dutch heritage, right? So I don’t know really what that means, but apparently the Dutch are pretty good at the dairy business, I think. There’s still a lot of dairies in Holland, so-

Dillon Honcoop:
The history dairy farming in the Netherlands goes back hundreds and-

Case VanderMeulen:
Hundreds of years, yes. Correct. [crosstalk 00:36:42]-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where it comes from, right? Then it just stays with a culture.

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s right. The little bit of an interesting tidbit is that Holland is a pretty small country. The State of Washington is five times as big as little Holland, as the Netherlands. So it’s interesting that there’s a lot of Dutch all over the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
With Dutch dairy farmers coming out to the West, I’ve always heard, “Well, the Dutch came to the U.S. and then they found the West coast of Washington, and Oregon, and found that climate was similar to back home.” That was certainly the story for my family way back and over time as they ended up there. But you’re here in Eastern Washington, it’s hot and it’s dry, very different climate than back home in the Netherlands for you. Right?

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that make it more challenging and new, this whole thing?

Case VanderMeulen:
I think you’re spot on that a lot of the Dutch, they liked Western Washington, Western Oregon because of the climate and cows flourished there because not too big of temperature swings. And good feed, and pasture. Now, here in Eastern Washington, we’re here in the Columbia Basin, it does get hot and it does get cold, and we do get snow. But the good thing about it is we only get seven inches of precipitation here.

Case VanderMeulen:
Water is not good for cows, not necessarily the cows themselves don’t like it, but other organisms really like water. Bacteria, and viruses, and all that kind of stuff. They need water. And when it’s dry, you just have a lot less problems. Plus, you don’t have to deal with all the rain water and catch it, and store it. Because we, as dairy farmers or livestock in general, so to speak, we got to contain all our water.

Case VanderMeulen:
Every water that comes in contact with manure, we have to contain, store, and then apply it at agronomical rates to our crops. So we don’t do any groundwater contamination and/or any runoff going into any kind of a drain ditch, or water body, or whatever it is. Very important.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are you do to prevent things like that? How can you make sure that doesn’t happen?

Case VanderMeulen:
I have a facility that is built for it and the water always runs to the lowest spot, right? So we just need to make sure that the lowest spot drains into some kind of a storage structure.

Dillon Honcoop:
And catch it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And catch it. And actually in Eastern Washington here, that’s a good thing because we do need the water for irrigation. So that’s not a bad thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and the stuff that’s in it that could pollute say a stream, if applied correctly to a field can actually be a good thing, a positive because that’s the fertilizer, it’s the organic matter.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. Right here on our farm, we hardly buy any commercial fertilizer. We only use the fertilizer from the manure, from the cows. So therefore it’s kind of… Not kind of, it is the perfect cycle because we’re not buying any commercial fertilizer and we’re not over applying any of the nutrients on the ground. Therefore, self-sustaining.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is sustainability to your operation and your philosophy?

Case VanderMeulen:
Very big. We live here, we work here, we drink the same water. We live in the same environment. If we would pollute, we only pollute our future. So therefore there is no benefit in polluting, so to speak, if you want to call it that way. So we need to make sure that we continue doing the right thing, not only for ourselves, but also for future generations, and all our neighbors, and friends and family. So it’s a must.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it been like during this pandemic to keep the farm going? I know a lot of farms have had challenges how to take care of people, how to, but keep… It wouldn’t be right to just let the cows… You can’t stop milking them. You write to them and it would probably cause your operation to crumble if you did that for too long.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes. That’s the interesting thing about dairy farmer or having livestock. It’s not like a trucking company and said, “There’s no money, I’m just going to park the trucks and send everybody home and we’re done with it.” We can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to quit milking the cows, we’re going to quit feeding the cows.” That’s inhumane, can’t do it. So rain, shine, good economics, bad economics, we have to keep going.

Case VanderMeulen:
So as far the whole pandemic, we haven’t really had too many hiccups. We’re providing all the safety gear, having do an extra cleaning, and disinfecting, and all that kind of stuff, and trying to do our best on social distancing, but yeah, we haven’t had too many challenges. So quite honestly, for me, my work life, hasn’t changed all that much pre COVID versus now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about your team? How are the workers feeling about all of it? Are they worried?

Case VanderMeulen:
I don’t know if they’re really worried, but they are aware. They’re very aware and trying to do like I said, we’re a social distancing, and using face masks, and provide them, and temperature checks, and all this stuff. So far we’ve had pretty good luck.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for this operation then? You keep growing, do you keep doing what you’re doing? How long do you see yourself staying in this business?

Case VanderMeulen:
Don’t know for sure. That depends a lot on whether my son wants to go take over the farm or not, we have a few more years yet to do that. I love what I do, so I have no need to quit at this point in time. As far as growing, we’re probably not to grow too much more on this facility because all the systems are maximized. Like I was saying earlier, we’re self sustaining, if we milk a lot more cows, then we would get more nutrients.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then we would have to spread our wings more so to speak from… Put those nutrients on more ground. Yeah, that would be. So at this point in time, we’ll probably just going to stay where we’re at. Plus of course, not of course, but to where we’re in our co-op, Dairygold, we have a base system, a quota system like I was talking about in Europe. So you can’t just start shipping more milk because the co-op can’t really handle much more milk right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So all of your milk goes to that co-operative?

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s correct. I’m a member owner of Dairygold, and yeah, our milk, it’s used for either cheese or butter powder, Sunnyside plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like being a part of cooperative? How does that work? Does that work pretty well as compared to maybe a different model or a company buying your milk?

Case VanderMeulen:
I can’t really compare because this is the only thing what I’ve done. But obviously the idea from a co-op is that if you have a private processor, the processor would want to try to buy our milk as cheap as possible because… But it’s been pretty good, so the whole idea about a cooperative is that the “profits” that the private handler would make goes in the pockets of the dairy farmers. So that’s the background of it or the purpose.

Dillon Honcoop:
Earlier, you were saying, it’s hard to find good workers and-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… those are in short supply. What’s going on there? Why is it hard to find people to join the team? What is the deal with employee? I hear that so much in farming and all different kinds of farming across this state, there’s a workers’ shortage.

Case VanderMeulen:
I think before COVID, I think the biggest reason for that is that the economy was booming, so lots of workers need it. We only have so many, so you can try to pay more to somebody who works somewhere as else and try to recruit them. That operation or whoever where they would have to hire somebody else, so it’s significantly raised our cost of operation when there’s a shortage of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know some farm worker unions and stuff say, “Wow, there’s no shortage. There’s plenty of people here. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Case VanderMeulen:
No, that’s not true. That’s not true. There’s probably maybe plenty of people, but we’ve got to have qualified people. You got to have people that want to do a good job and feel good about their job at the end of the day, and want to be part of the team. Some of those organizations feel that we are not treating our employees well or not paying our employees well. I would beg to differ. There is not one employee here on our facility that makes minimum wage. Everybody makes more than minimum wage.

Case VanderMeulen:
And there is no concern from my perspective that we don’t treat people well because we really try to do our best. It doesn’t mean that it’s always perfect. It doesn’t mean there’s never any controversies or people are always just happy. No, of course not, but we really try hard to get a really good culture on our operation. That’s really what you need.

Dillon Honcoop:
If it’s not true, then why are some groups saying that?

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s all about money. I’m not so sure that labor unions today are really that interested in the wellbeing of the employees, but more about their own organization and having lots of members. It’s questionable in my opinion. Like I said, we don’t mistreat people like some of those organizations are trying to claim. They have a different interest. Not quite sure what, but they have a different interest.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you reach a point where you can’t get enough people to continue on this operation? Do you see that happening? I guess some people could say, “You can have more people. You just need to pay more. Pay $20 an hour, pay $30 an hour. Whatever it takes, then people will come.”

Case VanderMeulen:
That is probably true. That is probably true, but that isn’t then… High wages is not a guaranteed that they’re going to for one, do a good job or number two, be happy and satisfied in their working environment. Wages is only part of an employee’s wellbeing, so to speak. It’s just the same for all of us, we need to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day.

Case VanderMeulen:
I’m for sure not convinced that money or dollars at the end of the day makes us feel good. Money is a need, but it doesn’t give satisfaction at the end of the day if we don’t like what we do, no matter how much you get paid.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the operation and like the business, at what point does that become unsustainable to pay more? I would imagine labor costs are a pretty significant part of your overall costs. Aren’t they?

Case VanderMeulen:
Absolutely. As far as expense is concerned or costs, feed is our highest cost, in fact, highest which is usually about 50% of our income. Then labor is the next highest one, which is, let me see, probably about 15% plus. And then we have all the other things. So if the cost of the labor increase significantly, then that becomes a real issue. I guess, what it comes down to is we still need to be competitive from an economic perspective with the rest of the country. Because State of Washington has a pretty high minimum wage to begin with.

Case VanderMeulen:
Like I said, it’s not like we’re paying anybody minimum wage, but if minimum wage goes up, everybody else expects also be ready to go up also, right? It’s just not sustainable keep going up, and up, and up for our business because we need to compete. My milk’s not much different than somebody in Idaho, for example, which has a lower wage brackets, so to speak. My milk’s the same as the cows in New York or in Minnesota.

Case VanderMeulen:
So we need to be competitive, otherwise, the dairy industry in Washington over time will be significantly impacted.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest threat then? Is that the biggest worry about keeping dairy farming happening here in Washington State?

Case VanderMeulen:
I think so. Dairy is the second biggest ag sector in the State of Washington, behind apples. Apples and dairy in years past swaps back and forth on who’s the biggest economic ag sector in the State depending on where prices are. We are a significant financial impact for the State all together. Not that financial impact is the most important thing, but we do keep a whole lot of people working and getting good wages.

Case VanderMeulen:
Not only for the employees themselves, but also all the services around the dairy sector, so to speak. Equipment maintenance, parts of banking, financing, feed, the feed that we purchase. That’s a big economic impact.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s going to become more and more important as we go into what sounds like could be a pretty bad time economically here as people are going to be more interested in making sure we keep jobs available for people and people be able to make an income.

Case VanderMeulen:
You would sure think so, but that has not… It doesn’t seem to have an impact just yet. As long as the federal government keeps writing and everybody checks, I guess that’s… But that’s going to have to end at some point in time. Somebody’s got to pay for this. We need to go back to work as a country. My opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story.

Case VanderMeulen:
Thank you [crosstalk 00:55:42]-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s story that’s taking you halfway around the world.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Starting in the Netherlands and coming here to Washington State. And it’s pretty inspiring what you’ve been able to do starting just by yourself and growing this company. It’s pretty neat to see.

Case VanderMeulen:
Thank you. I’m obviously very proud of it, but at the same time, not the only one who did this, so yeah. If there’s a will, there is a way, and a will and persistency will win eventually. My opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day do you have invested into doing this? And I would imagine that’s seven days a week.

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yes. [crosstalk 00:56:30]-

Dillon Honcoop:
Some days, do you get a day off?

Case VanderMeulen:
I’ll get some days off, but 10 to 12 hours a day minimum, sometimes longer. But as to where the… I don’t do the day-to-day everyday work anymore. My job varies a lot. Meaning there’s hardly ever a day the same because we take care of challenges, and planning, and hopefully trying to look a little bit towards the future and see how we can stay relevant in today’s world because that’s what it’s all about. Right? We got to stay relevant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for taking time out of that busy schedule. And I hope I didn’t make your day that much longer.

Case VanderMeulen:
No, it was great. I don’t mind sharing my story. In fact, I think it’s important that we speak up and talk about the good things that dairy and ag in general has to offer the world. Not only here, but all through the world.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was fascinating to me about that is what he describes about the actual process that his very large dairy goes through to produce milk, manage the cows, employees, crops. It was very similar and very much in line with what my grandparents did many years ago, running their small family dairies that both of my parents grew up on. So in a lot of ways, this conversation for me demystified the really large dairy and showed me that it’s really what I already understand, just a lot more cows and people involved.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that was reassuring to hear. Thank you for being here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. We really would encourage you to subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an episode every week, and follow us on social media. And if something in this interests you, share it. It really helps us continue to grow this so we can include more and more people in this conversation about our food system and the people behind our food in Washington.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org. And by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Eddie part 2 | #033 07/27/2020

Hay farmer Andrew Eddie explains how hay is made in Eastern Washington, and reveals a potential opportunity for this state's huge tech community.

Transcript

Andrew Eddie:
You run it as a business, but you’re also trying to keep the idea of being a family of people, even if your employees aren’t family if they worked for you for a long time. We have employees that have worked for us for 10 years. We’re all family at this point.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, I had a career in radio for years and years. And now that I’m back in the farming community, it’s interesting to see the people who really should probably have their own show. And this week’s guest is totally that person. Andrew Eddie, this is part two of our conversation. He’s a conversationalist, a communicator, and if you heard part one with Andrew, he wanted to get away from the farm.

He didn’t want to do the whole farming thing. He wanted to be a journalist, or an advertising, or something like that. Got his degree, but came back to the farm, and realized that he loved the farm, and the farming life, and farming with his dad as a hay farmer in the Moses Lake area, but he still loves communication as well. So, we get into that more this week, we talked about the difference between big farms and small farms.

And we have a really good conversation about technology, and some of the opportunities there. Particularly in this state, where we have such a great tech community, and such a great farming community. And we talk about how the two just need to come together even more than they already have. This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

I’m Dillon Honcoop, a farm kid who after many years working in an office job, came back to the farming community, and I just want to tell their stories. I want to share the stories directly from the real people who grow, and put together the food that we eat here in Washington State.

[Music]

So, take us through the process, just in a nutshell start to finish, how you make hay. For people who aren’t familiar with what hay, because hay is dried grass, or alfalfa, I guess. Alfalfa isn’t technically a grass. It’s what, a legume or something?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, it’s a legume. So of course, we’ll take and we’ll seed it. Water it, fertilize it, get it to grow. Typically, we’ll get it to about a stage where hopefully, get it to a stage where it’s all standing up nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
How tall?

Andrew Eddie:
It depends. Pretty much, you try to get in between bud and bloom stage, for the most part, depending on where you’re going for. And depending on what you want your cutting schedule to be. Because you could state you’re cutting schedule, but it all depends on what works for you. Some guys are 30 days, some guys are 32-day, 35-day, it all depends. But typically, you want it before that bloom stage, because you get a decent test out of it, and stuff like that. So, that’s where that’s at.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you go cut it.

Andrew Eddie:
We go cut it, let it sit there for a couple days, three, four, maybe five days, depends on the weather. And it’s all grower preference to some people, and it all depends on the equipment too. Some guys run sickle headers on their windrowers. Some people run rotary headers with single conditioner, so it only crimps it in one spot.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, actually, crimp the stem of the grass or alfalfa as it goes through?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. So, of course, since it’s plant, you want it to get all the moisture out of it. So, you’ll take, and you’ll crimp it, and you’ll take, and pretty much squeeze the moisture out of it, and just break it, and do that kind of stuff. Or we even have machines that have double conditioners. So, we’ll take and go through two sets of steel rollers that are chevron shaped. So, it’ll take, and feed it through, and crimp all the stems, and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it cracks them up a little bit so that the moisture could get out.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. And it’s all grower preference too, if you want to keep it tight, or if you want to keep it spread out, or anything like that. So, we’ll lay it off flat. On the outside, when you’re looking at a field, and you drive by it, and it’s about ready to be raked, and it’s bleached across the top, and you’re like, “Wow, that stuff looks terrible. What are they doing?” As soon as it’s raked up, it’s nice and green underneath for the most part, depending on how long it sat there.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, more color in the hay, the dry hay, even though it’s dried out, it still has color in it. That shows there’s more nutrients in it for the animals that are going to eat it.

Andrew Eddie:
No. That all depends on the test at the end when you take and do that. But it’s just the thing you want is you want those stems to be dry. When you go to bale, you want those stems to be dry because if they’re not dry and they get in the bale, they’ll start probing say 15% to 20% moisture, 30% moisture, and then you run into heating up. So, it could combust.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that happen?

Andrew Eddie:
That’s just natural process. Since it’s packed all together, so it’ll start heating up and combusting, start making mold. And then, it will just start creeping all the way out. If it’s baled too wet, it’ll combust. It’s just because it sits there in that heat, not tight-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s so counterintuitive. You think if it’s wetter, but I know that from when I was a little kid. I remember my grandpa had a barn fire from hay that was baled too wet.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. And that’s the thing. So, typically, for us, we try to shoot for depending on what it is. Grass, we try to get a little drier. So, whether it’s 6% to 8% moisture in the bale, then that’s about right. But there’s ways to tell too. So, with the alfalfa especially, you can sit there and scrape stems, and if it scrapes off in your hand, it’s too wet. So, stem moisture is of course the biggest thing. There’s a difference between stem moisture and dew moisture.
So, stem moisture, you’re probably not going to be able to get stem moisture to dry on the bale. Dew moisture, a little bit depending on how much dew there is. If it’s a heavy dew, if it’s a heavy soaker, it’s like it just took a shower, then it’s probably too wet. If there’s a little bit of dew to help retain those leaves and everything on it, that give the best feed value, then that’s what you shoot for. So, typically, with alfalfa, export percentage is anything 12% or less, then that’s exportable.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, do you want it as dry as possible or is there such thing as too dry?

Andrew Eddie:
Too dry. There’s such a thing as too dry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that bad if hay gets too dry? Because this is all like a curing process, right?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Technically, it’s drying, but also actually locking in the good stuff in the grass for the animal to eat.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. So, if it’s too dry, it’s pretty much just turns into sticks. All the leaves are knocked off of it. There’s nothing to hold leaf on the plant. So, it disappears. You lose that leaf. And so, it’s all just sticky, it seems like straw, same thing. So, you can bale it too dry, for sure. And then, a couple other things is just like we have some tractors pulling in so that’s also exciting.

Dillon Honcoop:
But I think this is the tractor that does the next step in the process that we’re describing here.

Andrew Eddie:
For grass, yeah, yeah. For alfalfa, we’ll typically take, and so once going back to it, once-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, yeah, we were talking alfalfa, that’s right.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to grass in a minute, that’s a whole different beast itself. So, typically, it’ll lay there, we’ll rake it up, and put it together, and then take, and bale it, and take the stack wagon, and pick up the bales, and put it on stack in the corner, and hopefully somebody comes and buys it. So, it’s all a challenge, every step of the process is a challenge. Getting it, going and maybe it is a challenge, but also getting it sold is another challenge.
And then grass, that’s a whole different beast. Completely different beast is, alfalfa, I hate to say it because some people don’t like it when I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. Is the fact that you can neglect alfalfa, and it probably will still turnout decent. Grass, it’ll let you know when you mess up. And even if you look at it wrong, it’ll let you know. You can sit there and be like, “Oh, yeah, that stuff looks good.” The next day you come by and you’d be like, “Oh, never mind, thanks.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what happens?

Andrew Eddie:
Grass typically, if you over apply, under apply fertilizer, it’s very responsive to it. So, it’ll brown out, it’ll look sick, lighter color, things like that. Or when you go to bale it, and it happens to be too wet, then you’re hosed there because even with Timothy, so the Timothy plant itself, they’re 18 to 20 inches tall, at least, depending on what variety, and all that stuff.
Plus, growth stage, and when you want to cut it. So, the knuckles on it are what holds the most moisture in the stem. So, if your knuckles aren’t dry, then you’re going to be having a problem. So, you try to get those knuckles as dry as you can, and then bale it up.
And we’ve even seen where especially with grass, you start baling it and you’re like, “Oh, the moisture is good.” It’s like 8% Well, if the stems aren’t completely cured the next day, I guarantee it’ll probe double. It can grow probe 15% to 16% within a day. There’s a sweating process. So, you got to factor in for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s the point of making hay whether it’s alfalfa or grass? Why don’t they just feed the green stuff? It’s basically to be able to store it. It’s super old-fashion process, right?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. It’s a storage technique, pretty much, for the transportation. So, you can do silage. You can chop alfalfa, they do it all the time. The problem is you’re hauling a lot of water. It’s not economical to take it to the dairy when you’re paying for a bunch of water. That’s the nice thing about dry hay is you’re paying for actual feedable product. You’re not paying for water that you’re never going to use.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, then I’ve had it explained to me even here on this podcast, we were talking with Larry Stap, a dairy farmer back in Western Washington. And he talks about people asking whether or not his cows are grass fed, and he says, “Well, sure they are, but what do you think we feed them in the wintertime when they can’t be out eating grass in the field, and it’s just mud, and rain or snow?” Well, that’s hay or silage.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Well, and that’s the thing is like it’s a product that could be used at any time. That’s the nice thing is, plus, the other thing is, if we just chopped it, we have a limit on our customers. So, that’s the nice thing-

Dillon Honcoop:
But you can’t ship it across the globe that way?

Andrew Eddie:
Well, you could, you’re just not going to make anything, and you’re probably not going to want it, and pay what you want. It’s not going to be feasible. So, there’s always possibility for everything, but it’s not completely feasible in an economic sense.
The nice thing about, especially here in Eastern Washington is the fact that we can take and stack it up in a corner, stack in a stack yard, put a tarp over the top. Say eight month later, when snow starts flying, they can come grab it. Guess what? It still has the same feed value as it did within a few little caveats, but it’s the same no matter what.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you love it, farming?

Andrew Eddie:
Farming?

Dillon Honcoop:
Making hay?

Andrew Eddie:
I enjoy it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Handling the weather?

Andrew Eddie:
I enjoy it. I think I’ve diversified, not really diversified. I’ve got a bunch of different fish in the fryer so to speak. So, I like it because I can actually show, especially through social media, and then just stuff I’m doing every day. I can show what I’m doing. I can show the interesting side of farming. I can show what we do and what I find interesting.
Even like I stated in that video, and I’ve talked to a couple other people on social media, they’re like, “I don’t know what to post. What do I show? Everything I show is boring.” And I go, “It’s boring to you, because you do it every day.” But it’s probably not boring to somebody else, or the other things it does, it does one of two things. It shows, “Hey, wow, that’s cool. I never knew that. I want to learn more.”
Or B, “Hey, here’s another way to think about it. Have you tried this, or have you done that?” Or it even does a third thing where, “Can I come see how that works? I want to come and do that. Can I just come by? Yeah, you can come by anytime.” As long as you’re civil and you’re not trying to, “Oh, GMOs are bad. Oh, this and that.” You’re not going to start a little protest. There might be a little bit of a buzzword there. But come out, see what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And that’s for a lot of people who aren’t around farming. That’s what they know is they know that controversy points. And yeah, we can all talk about that, and the pros, and cons, and everybody will take their positions. But you have a job to do every day. And it’s not just all about the controversial social media talking points.

Andrew Eddie:
No. And I think that’s the thing is, I think I’ve got to the point where I like showing what we’re doing. Some things, of course, I’m not going to show. I’m not going to show you my books. I’m not going to show you my-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, shouldn’t be-

Andrew Eddie:
… things like that. Yeah. Going off on another rant apparently, just in my head right now is like, some people don’t like to tell how many acres they farm. I get it. You don’t want to sound like you’re, “Ooh,” some big old thing. But at the same time, who cares? If somebody asked me, “Hey, how many acres do you farm?” I’ll tell you.
It’s not a big head thing. You can be 10 acres or you can have 10,000 acres, it doesn’t really matter. How you handle yourself shows everything about who you are. If you’re 10,000 acres, and you act like you have 10,000 acres, and you’re better than the 10-acre farmer, then why? But everybody is the same.

Dillon Honcoop:
Some people feel like though the 10,000-acre farm can’t be good because it’s so huge, it’s unmanageable, and its lost touch with the human element. Is that true?

Andrew Eddie:
I’m going to put a little disclaimer in there and say it depends. It depends on who the farm is and what the farm is. But at the end of the day, we all have one goal, right? We want to grow something for the world. Real food real people, right? We want to grow something that makes a difference. We’re not here to harm the environment.
We’re not here to sway people and say, “Oh, you’re going to buy from our big corporate farm.” No. Everybody that works for that farm that makes it what it is, is a human. They do those things. They’re there. Are they making money? Sure. But it’s a business, so is everything else in this world.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, sometimes they’re making money.

Andrew Eddie:
Sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes they’re losing money, back to your casino analogy.

Andrew Eddie:
Sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, sometimes.

Andrew Eddie:
But I think that’s the biggest thing is like, and some people are like, “Oh, man, you spend a lot of time on social media, you spend a lot of time making marketing materials and things like that.” I go yes, because that’s what I like to do. But at the same time, it’s not to make it seem like farming is just this small little, like I said earlier, oh grow the crop. Yeah. It’s not just a bunch of backwoods people, it’s people.
And I think that’s the thing about farmers is the fact that you have to take and be an accountant, be a banker, be stuff like that, you got to be everything in order to make it work. So, I think that’s the biggest thing is, it’s not just somebody sitting there on a tractor. It’s not just a button a seat, it’s, if you’re going to be a grower and you’re going to be a farmer, you got to know how to do a wide range of things.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think people should know about what happens with growing their food or I guess in this case, food for their food, which is what you guys do, right? Grow hay for beef animal or a dairy animal that’s going to produce what they eat, once step removed. But regardless, people are concerned about where their food comes from, who are the people behind it?

Andrew Eddie:
I think they need to know that we try everything to get the product to be the best they can be for their animal or things like that. We do put herbicides down, we put fungicides down, we put all this other stuff, but they’re not harmful if they’re used in the correct way. We follow labels. We consult with our agronomist. We consult with our buyers and things like that.
We’re not doing anything intentionally to hurt an animal. So, another thing with alfalfa too, that can be a problem is if the nitrate levels are too high. So, nitrates are toxic to cows if they’re above a certain level. We pay attention to those. So, if we have a stack that test high nitrates, we’re going to be like, “Hey, I wouldn’t feed it to your cows, or I wouldn’t feed it to this, or I wouldn’t feed it to that, or in small amounts.”
We’re not intentional going through, and trying to cause issues, or like I said, ruin the environment or anything like that. We’re actually pretty good stewards of the land, whether we do no-till, or the fact that especially for us, all our forages are perennials. They come back every year. We don’t have to work the ground. We don’t have to do anything like that. It’s there.
We plan it once, we run it for three, four, five years. We’re going to have a Timothy stand that’s 12 years old. And we’ve never worked the ground. And that’s the thing is we’re conserving topsoil. We’re conserving nutrients. We’re conserving whole bunch of other stuff, and we’re doing less. We’re doing less, but producing more.
And I think that’s the biggest thing right now, especially as everybody is like, “Oh, there’s not enough crop, or this, or that.” Well, we’re producing more on a smaller amount due to herbicides, fungicides, all these chemicals that you’re saying, “Oh, well, they’re terrible.” They’re bad for you if you use them the wrong way. But we’re getting more out of less, and it’s not causing really too many issues.

Dillon Honcoop:
How important is soil health to the way you guys farm?

Andrew Eddie:
Soil health is huge. If we know how to soil health we know how to crop, right? So, that’s the biggest thing is soil health is probably one of the most important things that we deal with. Yeah, we can grow a crop, but if the soil is not right, we’re not doing ourselves any favors. We’re not doing the ground any favors. So, there’s a certain point of course that your return on investment for fertilizers or things like that.
There comes a point where you’re not going to be making any money, but if you can build up all that, then you’re in a good spot. You can take, and you’ll grow the crop, and you keep giving back, you keep giving it back, that it will keep growing a crop for you. You can sit and mine it out, you could. On lease contracts, sometimes people take and mine out all the nutrients, and don’t put them back.
And then, so the next grower has to come along, or the landowner has to come along, and try to build the soil back up where it was, and ends up costing an arm and a leg to do it. So, soil health is huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it’s not your philosophy to just take the nutrients that are there and run.

Andrew Eddie:
No. I will-

Dillon Honcoop:
it has to be more sustainable than that.

Andrew Eddie:
I will say sometimes it does happen. And it’s not on purpose. It’s not like we say, “Oh, we’re just going to screw this guy over.” That’s not our mantra. The biggest thing is getting it to produce where we can grow sustainable crop on it, and make money, and that’s the thing, or try to make money. I should say that. So, I think, yeah, it’s a toss-up too, because how much is too much?
And what is not enough? So, where’s that happy medium? Where can we be that we give back enough, but we also keep our costs in check, and can make it back with a crop that we’re growing for the stuff we’re putting in? Yeah. Soil is the basic thing that a plant needs to grow. One of the most important pieces, of course. So, if it doesn’t have a hospitable place to live, it’s not going to grow, and you’re not going to be happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
RNH Farms, what does that stand for?

Andrew Eddie:
Really Nice Hay.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Or for 2020, it’s Really Nasty Hay. No, I’m just kidding. So, when we first started, it was Rock N’ Hay. So, we have a lot of rocks and we grow hay. So, it was Rock N’ Hay.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it sounds like rocks in the hay.

Andrew Eddie:
You got it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say that.

Andrew Eddie:
You got it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
So, we have some customers come back and say, “Yeah, is there rocks in the hay?” I’m going, “No, no, no, no, no.” So, we shortened it, we’re like RNH Farms, and we just came up with the joke like really nice hay, and depending on the year, really nasty hay, right? So, I always tell people that. I’m like, yeah, really nice hay. So, it could be, it’s double meaning, but we got away from the Rock N’ Hay because it just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rock N as in it’s rockin’, like you rock this hay?

Andrew Eddie:
It’s like R-O-C-K, the letter N’ H-A-Y-.

Dillon Honcoop:
Got it.

Andrew Eddie:
So, literally, for a culture that is a direct, like they hear something and it’s a direct translation, it’s straightforward-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true because you’re having people buy this from, speaking all different languages across the globe, and they’re like, “What are you talking?”

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. A direct translation is like, “Oh, rock and hay, oh, well, there’s rocks in it?” No, no, no, no, no, no, no, we hope not. But no. Yeah, the portion that we live in is very… there’s a lot of calcium deposits. We’ll just say that. No, there’s a lot of rocks, and we’ve picked our fair share amount of rocks to get it to be farmable. So, that was the first initial one that came up with.
And then, we phased that out into RNH Farms. And we’re working towards more and more advocacy for what we do and our brand. People are like we talked about, “Why do you spend so much money on marketing materials, or hats, or stuff like that?” I go, “Because it’s a brand that I want to grow.” That’s the thing is like, it’s a brand that I’m proud of. So, let’s grow it.

Dillon Honcoop:
It stands for something.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. It means something to me. So, where can I take that? What can I make that into? And I think that’s the marketing advertising side of my background is, it’s taking something and how do we build it? How do we build it up? How do we grow it? And it’s not just grow it just for the publicity, it’s not just grow it for anything like that. But it’s a recognizable thing.
And like I said earlier, some of the overseas buyers are like, “We want to see RNH Farms first. Do they have any good stuff?” We know that they make good stuff. And it’s just a sense of pride. It gets you to bubble up inside and be like, “Yeah, we made that.” And then, sometimes we got to tell them no. Guess not, we don’t have anything probably.
But the biggest thing, especially with the agricultural community is the fact that it’s built on relationships, and that’s the thing. And I think that’s one of the other things that I enjoy the most is its relationships, is building that community, and building that brain trust for what we got going on. So, you can pull from different places and be like, “Okay, well, this worked for him, let’s tweak it a little bit, and then we’ll try it.”
Or no, we’re never going to do that again, because it has never worked and this and that. The old mentality, the old farmer mentality is the fact that I tried it once. 25 years ago, it didn’t work. So, I’m never trying it again. And that’s the thing, and I get it. Everybody gets comfortable. It goes back to talking about being inside a comfort zone.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, but if you tried it that way 25 years ago and lost your shorts on it, you’d have a lot of motivation to not do that again.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. But you got to keep an open mind. But yeah, and that’s the thing is like, agriculture is constantly evolving, right? And one thing about agriculture that is interesting is the fact that tech is in agriculture. But it’s about four or five years behind, where tech is everywhere else. Grain and stuff like that, technology is through the roof. For forages, it’s there, but it’s not as prominent. So, that’s the-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Andrew Eddie:
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that forages are the redheaded stepchild. I hate to do that little analogy, but that’s how it is. It’s just the backseat, but interestingly enough, so alfalfa is the number three top-grossing product in the world behind wheat and corn. It’s like, “Okay, well, why are we not getting more recognition?” Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly.

Andrew Eddie:
And if you actually look, so the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance puts together thing. So, the so the big five, so wheat, corn, soybeans, I think a tree fruit and something else, and then alfalfa. Out of those, the research funding for alfalfa is one-fifth the size of that for wheat, corn and soybeans. It’s like, “Why?” We’re up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
We need to get on that here in the state. And Washington is full of tech.

Andrew Eddie:
Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. Hey, if anybody in Seattle who’s in tech is listening, and is looking for an opportunity where they could really be a game changer. Believe it or not, it could be in farming.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, probably a lot of people in that world don’t necessarily think of farming, just like a lot of farmers don’t necessarily think about tech. And I think that’s also one of the biggest challenges too is, especially in a smaller community is, people always question us like, “Why do you use GPS on your swatters? You can’t just sit there and drive.” I go, “We could.” But I go, even on our machines, we’ve cut down probably an hour or two, at least, of cutting time because we’re using GPS.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much fuel does that save then too?

Andrew Eddie:
A whole lot. Probably, 12 to 15 gallons an hour per machine. So, here we are. Operator fatigue goes down, the amount of money that you pay for labor, fuel, equipment costs, hours of depreciation on that piece of equipment. There’s a whole bunch of factors and the investment for it, sure, it’s a little costly upfront. But you start spreading that out and you’re like, “I got it figured it out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s worth it.

Andrew Eddie:
It’s worth it, for sure. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not just a cool thing to make sure your rows are perfectly straight.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you guys are-

Andrew Eddie:
In all honesty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re in circles, so-

Andrew Eddie:
But still, it’s a whole lot different when you look at, even when our guys go to a field, they’re like, “Hey, did somebody not cut this with GPS?” And I got no, they got to sit there and go back and forth. But even like-

Dillon Honcoop:
I planted corn through college. That’s how I paid my way through my university degree. And dug on it, I could plant some straight rows.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d give those GPS guys a run for their money.

Andrew Eddie:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. I was going to say, “All right, let’s see what you got.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve run GPS tractor enough a few times to know that.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, you can come out here again. We’ll have a part two of this from the cab, and we’ll see how you do. No. I think that’s the biggest thing is like, there’s a little bit of a disconnect between tech an ag overall as a whole, for forages, especially. I don’t know if it’s just because there’s not a big push.
So, I don’t know if there’s just a bunch of smaller growers that are like, “Oh, I don’t want to adapt tech, or I don’t want to do this, or I don’t want to cater to big tech.’ Well, guess what, you’re going to have to get it. I go, do you have an iPhone in your pocket?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, then guess what, you’re already there. They know everything about you. So, it really don’t matter. So, I think there’s going to be a shift here the next little while that tech is going to be a bigger part. I just don’t know in what capacity.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember a couple years ago, Knute Berger with Crosscut in Seattle, and KCTS public television came up to do an article on some farms in Whatcom County. So, I met with him, and we were hanging out, and I was taking them around to some farms.
And that was the thing that he said, once he saw the robotic milkers that dairies were using, and some of the GPS stuff, and things they were doing on improving potato varieties, and things like that, because they do seed potatoes back there. And he’s like, there needs to be more of a nexus between all of our tech community in Seattle, in the city, and what you guys are doing in farming. So, he was saying exactly the same thing.

Andrew Eddie:
But on the other hand, though, I’m wondering if it, it all comes down to money, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s cost money.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s the thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it’s not like farming is high margin stuff.

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, yeah. No, we just make, yeah. I’m going to go home and hop in my Lexus.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, right.

Andrew Eddie:
Lexus is life. Anyway, my expenses say that’s how out of touch it is. It’s all driven by money, of course. So, yeah, you probably would be able to do it eventually. But when is it going to happen? There’s a lot of tech coming out that we could talk about, that I know a little bit about, that product guys know a little bit about, but it’s going to be a little bit before it gets here. It’s not going to be here instantly. It takes time. I get it.
Even we work with a software company that we keep track of all our stuff, and inputs, outputs, contracts, all this stuff. People are a little uptight about that situation to is like, “Oh, you’re working with them. It’s cost me a whole bunch of money.” Yeah, but guess what, it makes my workflow easier. And it gives me all my data that I want. I’m just a data nerd. So, I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I like numbers.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, then you can actually know what works and what doesn’t, based on changing your practices.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. And that’s the thing is like, I know where things are at. I know you got two styles of farmers. You got the super old farmers. They don’t have to be old in age, just old style.

Dillon Honcoop:
Old thinking, yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Flip open their pocket, they would be like, “Oh, yeah, got it.” You got the new style, the younger generation, “Oh, let me just whip out my phone. Okay, got it.” It’s all right here, and I even run into that. Between me and my dad is like, “Hey, yeah, I got it on my phone. Well, why don’t you write it down on a piece of paper for me so I know.” And I’m like, “You’re going to lose a piece of paper.” I have my phone with me, yeah, I could crash. I could lose all of that. But it’s fine. It’s backed up to the cloud, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, smartphones have changed farming in so many-

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
That would be a whole another episode to talk about even just-

Andrew Eddie:
Let me know. We’ll just talk about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. No, I think it’s changing, but it’s also getting the mentality of we’re not just backwoods. Farmers are not dumb people. Don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly few.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, there’s dumb people anywhere you go.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. There’re dumb people everywhere, but you know what I mean? We’re not just backwoods fly by the seat of our pants like, just get it done. There’s actually a lot of thinking that goes into it. And I think that’s the biggest thing is people are like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you had to cover the acreage four times.
I thought you just cut it once like wheat. Or I thought it was pretty easy. You just cut it. And then, a day later you’ll rake it, or a day later, you’ll bale it. You’d be done.” I even had a guy asked, he goes, “Well, did you bale this field all in the same direction?” And I’m going, “No, I go because there’s a pivot in the way.
So, we got to go opposite direction with two different machines, three different machines, whatever.” No. And some of the questions is like, “Okay, that’s pretty basic. Oh, it’s basic for me.” So, I think that’s the other biggest thing is I like sharing. As you can tell that I’ve talked this entire time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Certainly, that’s my gig.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been a professional talker for a long time.

Andrew Eddie:
So, keep farmers cooped up in the tractor [inaudible 00:33:53] for too long. This is what you get. So, that’s the other thing is with communicating about things is the fact that we can show, “Hey, here’s what we do. Here’s how things are different or similar.” But like we were talking about earlier is the fact that you can go from here, and go down the road to a different farmer about the same size.
They’ll do things some the same, some completely different. It all depends. But guess what, at the end of the day, we’re doing the same thing. We’re trying to run a business and grow a business. And I think the biggest thing especially is you run it as a business, but you’re also trying to keep the idea of being a family of people, even if your employees aren’t family.
If they worked for you for a long time. We’ve we have employees that have worked for us for 10 years. We’re all family. That’s the point. So, I think that’s the biggest thing, but yeah, it’s interesting. It’s an interesting world we live in, for sure. The agricultural world is definitely one big family.
And the last thing I want to touch on is yesterday, I was sitting at home, and I happen to see a post from another farm down in Nevada. And it was like, “Hey, we only get two shots at this. We growers get one shot, dry land guys get one shot.” Things like that. How are we adapting to what life is throwing at us?
Reach out to those people and be like, “Hey, how’s it going? How are you doing? I understand the weather is not good, but what’s going through your mind? How can I help you? Can I stop and say hi? Can I have a cup of coffee with you? Can I talk with you for two-and-a-half hours or however long we’ve been here?”
But I think it’s all just one big family. I think that’s the best thing is grow a community that you want to be a part of. Surround yourself by people that make you better. Don’t sit there, and just sit behind the screen, and “Oh, my life is terrible or this or that.” Spread joy. Don’t sit there and create drama. Spread joy. Make the world the way you want to see it. Make it a good place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Thanks for sharing your story.

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, of course. Of course. Any time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I appreciate it.

Andrew Eddie:
Any time.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s pretty fascinating, all that goes into it. And I know we’re just scratching the surface.

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, we’re completely just scratching the surface. We could probably talk for another two, three, maybe four hours, hit that happy hour groove. But no, like I said, I enjoy telling the story. And it’s not just me. And that’s another thing is you see one person from somewhere, and especially on social media, you don’t get introduced to the person behind the camera too often. So, how do you share your story for how you fit in into the operation. I can’t do it all by myself. There’s no way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that’s why I’m going around the state to capture stories from people like yourself.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Yeah. I think it’s big. It’s telling, telling your story, but also telling the story of what you’re doing, and where you’re at. What do you want to share about your operation, or your personal life, or things like that? It’s huge, and I think we have a good opportunity, but are we going to waste it?
And if people criticize the way you do things, or you just backlash and be like, “Oh, well, you’re dumb. You don’t know, you’ve never been on a farm.” No, hey, come out and see. I’m happy to talk to you. I’ll be civil. I’m not going to sit, and just be like, “Oh, well. You’re dumb.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They can reach you anytime on social media too, from wherever they are.

Andrew Eddie:
And that’s the thing is like-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your handle by the way to follow?

Andrew Eddie:
So, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, it’s just RNH Farms. And then yeah, it’s good. It’s good. That’s the farm, and then the personal one is just andrew@rnhfarms on Twitter and Instagram, but I post more on the farm side. I treat that as my own personal showcase. So, yeah, it’s pretty good content, it’s good community, great stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for doing it.

Andrew Eddie:
Of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for chatting.

Andrew Eddie:
Of course.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. So, we talked a little bit earlier there about technology. Are any of you in the tech world looking for an opportunity, want to apply the skills, and the knowledge, and the experience you have to creating something that helps farmers grow food more efficiently, or better somehow? Reach out to me.
I can see if I can find somebody, and hook you up, and let’s get this conversation started. That’s what I feel here in Washington. This is such a huge opportunity that is, I think, in a lot of ways untapped. Since we have so much talent here in both the technology and the farming world. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address.
So, if you have an idea, shoot me an email, or hit me up on social media. @rfrp_podcast is our Instagram handle, as well as our Twitter handle. rfrp.podcast on Facebook. So, follow all those, subscribe on YouTube as well. You can see this interview on YouTube and watch the whole thing.
We were recording there in a field if you could hear some of the background noise. We were just out in the middle of a hay field. And you can actually see what it looked like on the tailgate of Andrew’s truck when we did that conversation a few weeks ago. Thank you for being here and supporting the Real Food Real People podcast.
We certainly could use your support to help spread the word about the podcast, get more people subscribing, following along, as we try to grow this conversation to include as many people as possible. To reconnect our food system from those of us who eat, and those who grow the food that we eat, who are actually behind who grow it, process it, package it, truck it.
And we haven’t had a trucker yet on the podcast that. I should do that. Those people are a big part of our food system, and making sure we have something to eat, and keeping our food local rather than potentially shipped in from who knows where. Again, realfoodrealpeople.org is the website. I’m Dillon Honcoop, thank you so much for supporting and listening along.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Eddie part 1 | #032 07/21/2020

When Andrew Eddie turned 18, he decided he wanted nothing to do with his family's Moses Lake hay farm. But with a few years away from home and a college degree under his belt, he began to see things differently.

Transcript

Andrew Eddie:
I reached a point where I was done. I didn’t want to farm. I thought farming was probably one of the worst things I could do.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Deciding to grow food, to become a farmer, is a huge decision for most people that do it, and this week’s guest definitely that’s a part of his story where he didn’t want to be a farmer even though he grew up around it. And you hear this so many times, people who grow up around farming and decide they are done with it, usually when they’re ready to go to college or something like that, and so many people then come back to it later and see it with different eyes. That’s the story of this week’s guest. He grows food, but not food that people eat. We’re going to jump into his world, which is hay. He grows hay to feed animals and his hay is shipped all over the world, but it’s grown here in Washington State in Moses Lake. Andrew Eddie is his name with RNH Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
We had a great chat out in a field. We actually have a full video available if you want to follow us subscribe on YouTube, Real Food Real People. Just search us up on YouTube and you can see the full video because we have planes flying over, people driving by, wind blowing over our microphones because the whole interview was done on a pickup tailgate in a hay field, literally. So you can see that there if you want to. You’ll certainly hear that as you listen to our conversation. Some interruptions come up from time to time. Please enjoy. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys across Washington State to hear from, and really get to know, the people behind our food here in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’ve never done an interview in a field before.

Andrew Eddie:
Me either.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s this field that we’re in here.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, we’re in the corner of one of our alfalfa fields.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
Here in beautiful Moses Lake, Washington. It’s nice and sunny out today, I mean, minus a little bit of clouds. It’s a little dark right now, but about the first sunny day we’ve had in five, six days.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys have been battling the weather.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Mother Nature has definitely decided that she isn’t too happy. I don’t know if she just got cooped up with corona for too long, or what the deal is. But she decided she was going to make it known that she’s still around. She hasn’t left, so we’re rolling with the punches and we’ll see what happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you guys grow hay, is that pretty much it? You’re just a hay operation?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. We’re just a forage operation, so minus 100 acres of corn actually-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
… that we just planted this year. We’re just using it as a rotational crop, just to give our soil a little break on alfalfa or grass. Yeah, we got about, minus the trucks driving by.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, just wave. Hey.

Andrew Eddie:
We’ve got probably about 1300 acres of total crop and that’s all forages. So technically, or not technically, we try to of course get the highest quality we can out of our crop, and most of it we shoot for export quality. So we try to make the best product that we can with what we got and where we’re set up. Yeah, that’s where that’s at.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does export quality mean?

Andrew Eddie:
Export quality is just, I mean, kind of the … It all varies. I mean, exporters take a wide variety of stuff. There’s a need for supreme, premium, feeder, dairy. It depends on what they’re looking for. so it’s broad, but we just try of course for the highest quality. I mean, most everybody tries for the highest quality, but like we were talking about earlier is about 95% of our product goes for export compared to some guys that just shoot for the domestic market like local retail sales, or anything like that. Our biggest thing is we take it, we sell it to an exporter and they ship it overseas to wherever their customers are, what they need.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what happens to that hay then?

Andrew Eddie:
So after we put it in the stack, or put it into a bale, put it in the stack, they will come and buy it, haul it into their pressing facility. There’s a bunch of pressing facilities located in Ellensburg, which is about an hour and change away from here, or there’s some local pressers here, or Tri-City’s. Just all around the state. So they’ll take it, they’ll press it down to whatever package the customer wants and then they’ll put it in a shipping container and ship it where it needs to go. So whether that’s Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China. I mean, pretty much all over the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
So pressing it that’s like you take … I think people are familiar with a hay bale.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
You know? And there’s small bales. I think that’s what most people would be familiar with, which are like yay-

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yay big. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then there’s little bit bigger ones than that. There’s also big bales like actually you’re on the balers right behind the camera, so people can’t see that.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But so which ones are you actually … And they take bales and just squish them down that much farther?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. There’s actually a bunch of different packages that they can do. So they’ll take a three foot by four foot by eight foot long bale and compress it down. They can do a half cut, a sleeve bale. They can do a double compressed, a single compressed. I mean, there’s a ton of different package that they can do to get it done to … For the most part most of it will go about to a package about yay big, which is I think a 50kg package and they’ll stack them all in the shipping containers, and then that’s how they get it over there. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are all these planes flying around here? Good grief.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. We’re pretty close to the airport and the military enjoys flying over and interrupting super important interviews that are happening right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. I see.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they hear when a podcast is happening.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, they hear when you’re trying to sleep. They hear when important stuff’s happening, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
They quick scramble some cargo planes-

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to interrupt.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. No, so all kidding aside. No they fly around all day, every day so we actually get to see some pretty cool stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Fighter jets flew over earlier today and nothing says America more like some fighter jets flying over. But yeah, it is all dependent on what the overseas customer wants for a package and it all depends on what they’re using it for too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So those bales that you’re squeezing down how much do they weigh?

Andrew Eddie:
Initially?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So when we get them in our bales they can be anywhere from, I don’t know, probably a little over a 1,000 pounds to 1300 pounds, 1400 pounds. It all depends on the crop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Over a half ton of hay.

Andrew Eddie:
Yep, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, they squeeze that down into … What’s the smallest that they can squeeze that down into?

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, man. You’re asking me a bunch of tough questions. I probably should know this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just roughly. Roughly.

Andrew Eddie:
If any of our buyers watch this I’m sorry, like I apologize. I’ve been doing this long enough I probably should know, but today’s one of those days. I think the smallest package is probably a 50 kilogram.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so they actually break the bales up into smaller pieces?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, so what they’ll actually do is so they’ll take the bale, they’ll cut all the strings off of it, they’ll put it into their thing and they’ll slice it, and then they’ll take it and put it in the press and hydraulic [inaudible 00:08:16] and push it all together. It pops out and it’s magical. It’s magic. Nobody knows how it works.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then they feed it to their animals wherever they are in the world.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. And then they’ll take and like I said put it in a shipping container and that’s what they do.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s the key to making really good animal feed hay?

Andrew Eddie:
Mother Nature cooperating in the best way possible. It all depends. I mean, weather’s a big thing, nutrition’s a big thing. Just paying attention to what you got for crops. Paying attention to water and fertilizer, nutrient plants, things like that and just management is pretty much the biggest thing. And then, hopefully Mother Nature plays nice with you.

Dillon Honcoop:
So a lot of your nutrients for your hay actually comes from manure?

Andrew Eddie:
They can. It all depends. It all depends on the grower’s program too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
I mean, there’s something to be said about manure, especially for alfalfa or things like that. Dry fertilizer, liquid fertilizer is the general thing. But that’s where that comes from, so. Or liquid manure, some people do that too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
It all depends on grower preference. Everyone has what works for them.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the manure that you would fertilize the crops with comes from where?

Andrew Eddie:
It depends on where you get it from. I mean, there’s a bunch of dairies up here if you want liquid manure. There’s also a bunch of feed lots, so we can get screened steer manure for pretty readily available. So again, it all depends on who, and what, and why, and what the price is.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, irrigation too. You’ve got to water all these-

Andrew Eddie:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… alfalfa and grasses that you grow.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, so luckily for us we’re on the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. So we have surface water available so we can go up and fire on a switch, get the pivots going, and we’re good to go. You know? We do have some wheel lines, we’ve got some hand lines, but nothing too major. It’s pretty nice to be able to flip it on and just have consistent water all the way across.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s a lot better than hand lines, which-

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for people who aren’t familiar with that, and I learned that at a young age, the joy of changing hand line, which is the actual pipes and you pick them up one 20 or 30 foot pipe at a time. Move it over however many feet you’re going, 30 feet. Whatever the next section of the mainline is from the riser if that makes sense to anybody. I don’t know, but that’s a lot work. I’m surprised you guys still, what? Is that just if you have a corner of a field or something you can’t get?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, we actually just have one field that is just like two corners that we water with hand lines and then I think we have two or three sets of wheel lines, which is the same concept except luckily it has a motor on it so you can roll it, you know?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep, exactly.

Andrew Eddie:
Roll it and park it, but pivots. I mean, because the other thing about pivots is they’re efficient. So they’re efficient on water. They’re efficient on water pattern and they cover ground. One thing about pivots, one downfall is, there’s a little more to fix.

Dillon Honcoop:
So pivots are these things that if you’re flying over farm country you see the circles?

Andrew Eddie:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s where people talk about farming a circle?

Andrew Eddie:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then the irrigation basically the water comes up in the middle of the circle and then there’s the big framework that goes out with all the sprinklers on it and it just goes around?

Andrew Eddie:
Yep, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long does it take for one of those to go around a circle?

Andrew Eddie:
It all depends. I mean, if it were to go full hog on a 130 acres, I mean it all depends on machine too. Say just a standard pivot could take seven hours, six hours to go 130 acres all the way around, complete revolution. But it all depends on now there’s different gear boxes too. So different gear boxes, different center drives that you could actually make. There’s one company that actually makes center drives and gear boxes that actually doubles the speed, it’s constantly moving. So it can actually cover, when normally it’d take seven hours, it’d cover it in four.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they don’t normally constantly move? So they move a little bit, sprinkle and then move a little bit more and keep going around the circle?

Andrew Eddie:
They still move, but it’s all in succession. So the end tower is the lead tower, takes off and second one follows and then it’ll stop for a little bit, let it all catch back up and stay in a line.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so the pieces move separately out-

Andrew Eddie:
Yes, yeah. Out on the end. So technically your last tower moves further than your first tower because that runs through the center point.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you’re driving by you see way more water coming out of the outside sprinklers oftentimes than the inside ones.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and it also has more ground to cover too. So, the inside ones have less, so the nozzles are smaller because they don’t need to put as much water down. So, you’re outside ones are going to be a whole lot, put a whole lot more water down in that span.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is all new to me because I grew up around farming, but it was in western Washington and we don’t do that there.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean there are just a few pivots over on that side of the mountain.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Mother Nature cooperates with you guys, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and the fields are way smaller too, right?

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so people will use hand line or wheel line or big guns or drip irrigation or yeah, just hope and pray for rain at the right time and not the wrong time.

Andrew Eddie:
Right, right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that, growing hay, is that the biggest challenge is just trying to get the rain when you want it and the dry, hot weather? That’s what you need to dry the hay out after you cut it right?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I mean I’d say that’s probably about 92% of the challenge is just weather. I mean it can take a good crop and turn it into pretty bad, pretty quick. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does it do to it?

Andrew Eddie:
So for alfalfa especially, it’ll take and if it rains on it enough it’ll actually start washing nutrients out of it. So not only will it start bleaching it and cause it to lose color which is a portion of how customers buy it, it’ll actually start washing the nutrients out of the plant. So your RFV will go down, your digestible nutrients will go down. All that stuff that buyers or dairies want to see is that nutrient value.

Dillon Honcoop:
Most nutrition for their animals to eat.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. So it takes away on that. On grass, especially on Timothy. So Timothy is very … It’s bought on color. A little bit on feed value depending on where it goes and stuff like that. But it’s primarily bought on color and look and things like that. So you get a little bit of rain on it and here we are. You’re turning into a product where it’s automatically a lower grade and it can go from premium to number one, number two quality in a matter of a couple hours.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
So, a little shot of rain, it depends.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the value difference, percentage wise? How much money can you lose in a couple hours with the wrong rain?

Andrew Eddie:
You could lose probably about 50%. So, about half its value you could just sit there and watch as it trickles off the windshield and yeah. It all depends. Everything has a home, but everything has a home for a certain price too.

Dillon Honcoop:
When I was a kid both of my grandpas, well grandparents because they both ran the farms, grandpa and grandma, they had dairy farms. My one grandpa in particular, my dad’s dad, was very much into feeding his cows alfalfa, almost exclusively other than other nutrients. But he didn’t do silage or local hay or anything. He got eastern Washington alfalfa from here and he would come out and look at the field and he wanted to know that he was getting the best stuff for his cows. This is where he would come. You talk about Timothy though, what are they feeding with Timothy? That’s not going to be for dairy cows right?

Andrew Eddie:
Ah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It can be?

Andrew Eddie:
It can be, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Part of their TMR?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, they-

Dillon Honcoop:
Their milk retention.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah they’ll take and put it in their mixed ration. A lot of dairies in China will take it, Japan things like that. But, Timothy has a wide use.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think of feeding horses when I think of Timothy.

Andrew Eddie:
Right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my experience with it.

Andrew Eddie:
Horses, race horses are the biggest. Everybody is like, “Oh, they feed it to race horses.” That’s correct, but they also feed it to camels, guinea pigs, gerbils, anything like that. Any animal they’ll eat it. I mean it’s pretty good. Yeah that’s … It all depends. Like I said it all depends on what customer is taking it and then how they want to use it and things like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So have you gotten the chance to visit any if these customers out around the globe?

Andrew Eddie:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where the hay goes to? That would be, I think that would be really fascinating.

Andrew Eddie:
No, so seguing into that. So currently we’re part of the Washington State Hay Growers Association as you might be able to tell behind me. Shameless plug, it’s fine. So I’m current Vice President and then our current President actually went overseas here last year and visited a bunch of the dairies and stuff and things like that. So, at some point that’ll probably be on the docket maybe once all this … Maybe 2021, ’22, ’25 who knows when this corona deal gets over.

Dillon Honcoop:
So some day you’ll get to go see it?

Andrew Eddie:
Some day. But yeah, no and we’ve been doing this awhile. So we’ve met some of the customers when they come here and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah we like your guy’s product or we like this or we like that. Can we see that?” So that makes us feel good because we’re like okay we have repeat customers. Not just people buying directly from us, but people that are buying through us technically.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. I always thought that it was impressive that my grandpa would come all the way … dairy farmer from western Washington would come all the way over to eastern Washington to check out his hay. A little bit more impressive if you come all the way say from China to check out your hay.

Andrew Eddie:
Right, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
But I guess that’s how important it is to them to get good quality. It’s worth the trip.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. No, and they take and they trust the buyers. They trust the exporters on what products they’re getting them. But they also like to come put eyes on it because things change when you actually put eyes on it. You can send pictures, you can make it look pretty. But at the end of the day if you put eyes on it and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t really like this part of the bale or I don’t really like that head size or I don’t like … there’s not enough leaf. There’s too much stem. They’re super thin, they’re brittle.” I mean there’s a million things that they can pick apart and be like, “Well we want it for this price” or “Oh, this looks really good we want it for a little higher.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll actually say that?

Andrew Eddie:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
We hope they say it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You’re probably going to come in and say, “Hey this is awesome hay. Here’s the price.” They’re going to say, “Will you take 25% less than that?” You’ll be like, “Hm.” How much negotiating goes on with this stuff?

Andrew Eddie:
The exporters sit there constantly and negotiate about it. They’ll offer it out and they’ll see what they say and they’ll do probably three or four counter offers and see what happens. I mean it all depends. We just sold some today that they offered out a couple times and three or four, five negotiations. Middle of the night because time difference.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, true. True.

Andrew Eddie:
They’re like, “Hey here’s what we got. This is the product, here’s where we need to be at. Here’s where my grower needs to be at. Here’s where I need to be at to make some money. Here’s where you got to be.” See if it fits in where they’re thinking.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many acres are you guys growing hay on?

Andrew Eddie:
We have 1300 acres and then we do another probably 1300 acres worth of custom work. So total for last year we covered probably 8500 acres for the entire year-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
… after all four cuttings of alfalfa, two cuttings of Timothy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, going over those same acres.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So customer work meaning what?

Andrew Eddie:
We just, we go and we work with another custom guy and we’ll actually go cut and then he’ll rake it and bale it. The farm that has the ground doesn’t have the equipment to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I see.

Andrew Eddie:
So they just contract hired out and we go and do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s half of the acres you cover is custom work?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
Yep pretty much. It varies a little bit depending on what their rotation’s at. But for the most part that’s where we’re at. So, yeah. It keeps us busy. If the machine’s not rolling, it’s not paying for itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true.

Andrew Eddie:
So employees aren’t cheap. Labor’s not cheap, fuel’s not cheap. Equipment definitely isn’t cheap. So, you got to supplement a little bit. But it also keeps, definitely keeps us busy.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you guys get into this?

Andrew Eddie:
Farming as a whole?

Dillon Honcoop:
Or hay farming specifically? Did you not always do hay farming? Or what’s the family background?

Andrew Eddie:
So family background, technically I say I’m second generation hay farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
My grandpa he had the ground, he used to work odd jobs. I mean he did anything and everything. He was a fireman, he was a lumberjack, he was a quality control specialist somewhere. I mean he’s done a multitude of things and he ended up with farm ground. So he farmed a little bit. But my dad pretty much started the place. But, he used to work for another hay grower here in the local area and he worked for him for 25 years. Then things just weren’t working out, so he decided hey I’m going to try to go do this on my own. So like I said my grandpa had some ground and my dad said, “Hey I want to start farming.” So they started with about 200 acres, pretty much where we’re sitting at right now. Since then, and that was probably 12 years ago, 11 years ago, and since then we’ve grown from 200 acres to 13, 1400.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
With five or six employees probably by the time you get through everything. So, yeah it was pretty much my dad. He’s been around hay for a long time. So, I mean he’s been around hay for, I’ll do some quick mental math. It would be 34 years he’s been around hay. 34, 35.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you start farming?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah so born into it, so that’s always good. They say the biggest challenge with family farming is putting up with your family. You love your family, you do. But it takes a special nutcase to want to willingly and come and work together, right? You butt heads every once in a while, 95% of the time. But, you make it work. So, I was working here just summers and stuff like that doing normal farm tasks and things like that. Then I reached a point where I was done. I didn’t want to farm. I thought farming was probably one of the worst things I could do, which is bad to say because-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. The wind is blowing our microphone over.

Andrew Eddie:
Here, we’ll do that. So, I was like, “No I can’t do this. I can’t work with family. I’m not going to farm. I don’t like it. It’s terrible.” Blah, blah, blah.

Dillon Honcoop:
This was when you were how old?

Andrew Eddie:
I was about 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So it was time.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s a key time to be making some decisions.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah so I was like, “I’m going to go do something else.” My parents were supportive and they were like, “Okay yeah do what you want.” So I applied to go to school at the University of Oregon in Eugene and took them about a month and a half to get back to me and I had a couple other offers, a couple other places to do random things. I thought I was going to do engineering and thought I was going to do this and then realized that’s a whole lot of math and a whole lot of thinking that my brain couldn’t handle.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m not smart enough for that.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s for sure. I’ll be the first to admit.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, so I’m like, “No, let’s not do that.” So I waited and waited and waited. Got into the University of Oregon, didn’t know what I wanted to do. Went down there, had two years left. I had already gotten my Associate’s Degree from a local community college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got down there, I ended up signing up for some journalism classes and I was literally sitting in, I think it was a 201 class, so basic first introductory class that was media studies. I’m sitting there and I’m going, “This advertising thing is not too bad. It looks pretty good.” So I was like, “You know what, I’m going for it.” So I ended up getting a degree in journalism communications with an emphasis in advertising. Then it got down to trying to find jobs. Pretty much everybody I went to school with got jobs at Nike, big old ad agencies, all this other stuff. I’m just like-

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re in Oregon too, so yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I’m like, “Here I am, what do I want to do?” I was like, “All right well I’ll go back to the farm. Shouldn’t be too bad.” I got back here and I’m like, “Why did I leave?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Really? It was that apparent?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and don’t get me wrong I enjoy the whole advertising world. I enjoy all that stuff. But, I think-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah you got a fan club. That guy has driven by multiple times and he wants to watch the podcast I guess.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah the boss is driving around wondering what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop:
That guy is the boss man? Aka, your dad?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, I didn’t recognize him.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. So, no I left and that was that. So, I came back and I’m like, “This is what I want to do. I enjoy growing crop and I enjoy doing this and I enjoy doing that. So let’s make it happen.” Ever since then I’ve been back.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did your dad say?

Andrew Eddie:
He didn’t say much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And he was happy to have you come join the operation?

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, yeah. Yeah he was happy. The first couple of years were a little rough. We’re just getting back into hey I went off and did this, so I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep.

Andrew Eddie:
Not really completely, but it was just one of those deals where it’s like how about we do it this way? How about we do it that way? Now we’re at a decent spot. We’re getting along a whole lot better. We make things work a whole lot better because we do have different views on how to do things or we do have different thought processes when doing something. So, I think that’s one of the biggest things. But I’ll tell anybody that if you’re wanting to farm, especially with family or anything, go do something else and come back because you learn a lot more when you’re gone than when you’re there. I think if you stick around, and this is with any job, wise words of wisdom with Andrew today.

Andrew Eddie:
But, I think this is with any job is the fact that you get in a comfort zone. You get in a comfort zone in your life. You get in a comfort zone with your job so you’re like, “Well I don’t have to change anything.” Then you get out there and you experience different things. You experience different people and how they do things to get a certain task done. And you’re like, “Hey I’m going to try that. Why don’t I think about that?” So I think getting somebody out of their comfort zone is the biggest thing for sure. So, I think now the boss is staring at me. I think that’s the biggest thing is get out of your comfort zone. I think you learn more out of your comfort zone than you do in it. That’s the biggest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anything specifically that you take away from your education that changes maybe how you do your work now? I mean people think, “Wow that’s a far cry from a communications degree.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right. No I think it’s shifting too. I think the push now is especially is being active on social media and things like that and showing our story. We’re not just some, well I tell you what we big old farmers here. We’re actually doing a job that takes a whole lot more than okay let it grow. Even when I was explaining it earlier it’s like, “Well we just put water on it. We put fertilizer on it, it’s done.” It’s a little more than that. Somebody can do it, but it all depends on how and what. So, no I think the biggest thing is yeah, it’s communication is of course the backbone of pretty much anything. I mean communication is the backbone of … as the wind picks up a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey but you hay people, you love wind right?

Andrew Eddie:
I’m loving it right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t this what makes your hay awesome?

Andrew Eddie:
For sure, yeah. No, I think communication of course is the backbone of anything. Relationships, negotiations for buyers, anything like that or even relationships with [inaudible 00:31:00] or things like that. So, it all comes down to it. But the biggest thing, especially with social media, is the fact that we have the opportunity and platform to share our story, right? So, that’s the biggest thing for me is it’s allowing us as an operation to showcase, “Hey here’s what we do. We’re not saying it’s perfect, we’re not saying it’s the best thing ever. We’re not saying we’re absolutely right. But, here’s what we do, here’s why we do it and here’s our thought process.” Maybe somebody else will take it or maybe somebody else will be like, “Hey why don’t you try this or have you ever tried this?” Things like that. I’ll have growers reach out and be like, “Hey what do you normally put down on your Timothy or what are trying on your alfalfa that looks really good?” Things like that.

Andrew Eddie:
It gives me a certain sense of pride and it gives us, well not so much the social media mogul over there that searched Twitter all day. But, it gives me a certain sense of pride because it’s like hey here’s what we’re doing somebody is recognizing, “Hey that’s pretty sweet. I think we can do something.” So I think yeah, it just gives … It’s a whole new avenue. We can market it in a different way and say, “Here’s what we got. Here’s showing you the inner workings of an alfalfa operation or a forage operation.” So I think that’s cool. It’s a challenge for sure. Here last week it was just raining, that was it. It was raining and that takes a big old blow to our ego and our confidence because I mean we are losing money. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not as tough as some of these other growers like potato contracts that are currently, were cut at the beginning of the year and things like that. They’re the ones that are suffering super a lot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So that was my point is I know we show all the good stuff, but we’re also human and we make mistakes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah you had a good video post about that on Instagram.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah it was one of those days where you just had to let it out, you know what I mean? You had to talk to somebody and if there’s nobody to talk to that wants to listen you just talk to yourself, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So I think that’s the biggest thing is yeah it’s tough, but we’ll recover and there’s some growers out there that it is a big hit. They can absorb some of these things. You start talking losing 100, 200 bucks a ton. Well probably about 100 bucks a ton. That’s a big deal. I mean at the end of the day that’s a lot of money that we’re talking about. I’ve even talked to some potato growers in the local area and one of the guys goes, “I just put $4,000 an acre into potato ground and I have to plant sweet corn or beans or peas and I’m not going to make a single penny back from what I already put into it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah he’s not going to be able to make as much as they had already spent on it.

Andrew Eddie:
No. Yeah and he goes, “That’s what I have to do. How am I going to make it work? I have no idea, but that’s what it is.” So we get a little bit of rain, yeah it’s a punch in the gut for sure. But, especially when it’s some of the best looking stuff that we had, that was ready to go right before it rained. But yeah, I think yeah it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well I thought your post was on point not just about farming, but about anybody on social media. That’s the phenomenon.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody just shows the best part of their life.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it makes everybody else feel like, “Oh, my life sucks.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the reality is everybody has a lot of crappy stuff in life.

Andrew Eddie:
100% and that’s the thing is yeah. I think that’s one of the biggest, what’s the word I’m looking for? That’s one of the biggest drawbacks of social media, but it’s also one of the biggest points that we can start to address is the fact that it may look all pretty and nice and the other side of the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
You might want to start digging a little deeper and I think that’s my point is we make mistakes. We’re not perfect. We have misapplication on chemical or our crop doesn’t grow or anything like that, it happens. Or Mother Nature kicks us in the butt and says, “You were feeling good. Yeah here you are. Here’s a little slice of humble pie.” So, I think social media is a double edge sword for sure and I think the biggest challenge … nobody wants to share the bad stuff. Nobody wants to say, “Hey I messed up.” It’s as simple as that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well they’re worried, number one they don’t want to look dumb.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And number two, I mean if you’re doing business you’re worried that your customers are going to be like, “I don’t know if I trust them anymore.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right, but I think that’s the biggest thing is closing that gap between where customers and us are at and getting people closer. The thing about it is even some of our overseas customers they were like, “Oh, well we’ve never actually seen alfalfa go on the bale. How does that work?” I’m like, “Here’s some videos.” Technology and all that stuff is great nowadays. You couldn’t do that in the past. I mean you could, but you’d have you know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well and as far as admitting to things not going perfectly with our generation, that’s what we’re into. We almost don’t trust somebody where things are too perfect.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s like that’s got to be fake.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, or that’s not actual reality. What is reality?

Dillon Honcoop:
Reality is doing a podcast and having wind pick up-

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and jets fly over and people drive by.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And people call you on the phone.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and the boss working on equipment behind you is what you get.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s reality.

Andrew Eddie:
Back of the pickup’s dirty. I mean a whole bunch of stuff. But I think that’s the biggest thing is I’ve had people say, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for sharing the bad.” I go, “It’s not even close to being terrible. I can sit here and complain all day about what goes wrong, but you look at other things in the world and you’re like my life ain’t that bad.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well that you said it earlier and now you’re saying it again and that’s something that farmers are really good at and it goes along with that farmer optimism, it’s that well things could be worse vibe.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah until-

Dillon Honcoop:
Farmers have to do that otherwise you couldn’t survive.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah we’re the biggest pessimists you’ve ever met in your life, no joke. We’ll look at something we’ll be like, “Oh, man that’s probably the worst quality stuff I’ve ever put up in my life.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re still an optimist because you’re going to try for it.

Andrew Eddie:
But, we’ll be like, “Oh, that’s terrible quality.” Then someone will come by and be like, “That’s probably the best stuff I’ve looked at so far.” You’re like, “All right, cool.” You can be an optimist and you’ll end up being fine. But that’s the thing is you reach a point where yeah, it kicks you in the shorts and you’re like, “I just want to go home and cry.” I mean it’s fine if you go home and cry it’s no big deal. But, it’s also one of those deals where it’s like what can we do about it? There’s nothing we can do about Mother Nature. If it’s something that we messed up we can fix it. Mother Nature comes through it’s out of our control. I mean you can sit there and say however Hail Mary’s you want but it ain’t going to matter about what’s going on. So the biggest thing especially this year is predictability on weather. There hasn’t been any. It’s been either 10% chance and it rains or it’s 70% chance and it’s sunny. It all depends.

Dillon Honcoop:
Such is the way of farming.

Andrew Eddie:
Such is the way of farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time for you so far farming? What’s the most challenging thing?

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, man. I mean one of the most challenging things is of course trying to juggle home life and farm life. That’s the biggest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
We put in long hours. Farmers put in long hours. Dairy guys put in long hours. Things like that. It’s balancing how much you’re working and how much you’re at home. Also for me, so my wife works at the hospital. She’s a labor and delivery nurse. So she’ll work nights and I work days.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep never see each other.

Andrew Eddie:
Never see each other and when she’s working I’m not working and shen she’s not working I’m working. So we got two kids at home so that’s the biggest thing. I take them out and be like, “Hey we’re going to go check. We’re going to go drive around.” Gets them out of the house but it’s also like-

Dillon Honcoop:
Daddy daycare in a pickup.

Andrew Eddie:
I got to go work. Here’s some fruit snacks, we’ll turn on some Frozen and we’ll be fine. But I’ve listened to my fair share of Frozen in this truck here. But it’s really sad when you’re off topic a little bit, when we’re driving around and the kids aren’t in the truck and the Frozen is still playing and you don’t notice. You’re like, “I really hope nobody pulls up. Let’s turn on some ACDC.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah a little awkward the farmer guy shows up and you’re listening to Frozen.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I mean it happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
If it was from my household it would be Bubble Guppies or Paw Patrol or something like that.

Andrew Eddie:
Perfect, yeah probably mine too, yeah. Yeah, no my kid yeah. My kid definitely enjoys.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well I grew up on the seat of a tractor myself. My dad was a custom farmer when I was quite young.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’d ride along with dad until he was doing something that was too rough to have a little kid. If he was ripping some rough ground or something with the tractor it was like, “Okay mom is going to come pick you up. You got to get out now.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t want you to whack your head on the steering wheel. Obviously older tractor, less room. No actual buddy seat. It was just fold the armrest down and the old 4240.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah the fender of the tractor making sure you don’t slip off onto the tire, yeah. Been there, yeah I’ve been there many times with my dad. I think that’s the biggest thing is my wife and I talk a whole bunch. I try to get home as readily as I can. I try to balance that life. It is absolutely probably one of the hardest things I deal with. Getting our guys to do whatever and getting equipment fixed and things like that. I mean I hate to say it’s easy, but it’s just a thing we do now. It’s a process for sure. So, yeah I think the biggest things is just finding that time.

Dillon Honcoop:
And your busiest time is in the summertime when everybody else in the world thinks that’s when we should be going on vacation.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Right, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was my growing up too.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I grew up on a red raspberry farm. You harvest raspberries in July. You do not do anything else.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you certainly don’t even mention going on vacation because that would be blasphemy.

Andrew Eddie:
No, no yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though you can get vacations in between cuttings.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe, sometimes.

Andrew Eddie:
We can get … we can sneak away for a little while. I mean going on vacation next week, but that’s beside the point. We were planning on being done for full disclaimer, not that it really matters. But one of the biggest things is that everybody is like, “Oh, well you just take the weekend off right?” Sure I could.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Andrew Eddie:
But everything is still going to be growing. It don’t matter. If the weather’s right we’re doing it. We’re going, we’re farming. Simple as that. I think the best description and I think most people have probably seen this floating around is the dad and the son like, “Oh, what is this?” “Oh, I don’t know son.” Well it’s the same thing with farming is like, “Hey dad what’s a weekend?” “I don’t know son we’re farmers.” That’s probably the best description I have because that’s the way it is. 4th of July, what is holidays right? What are weekends? People are like, “Oh, yeah did you make it there?” What day is it? Oh, Saturday well no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, sorry.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and then you know-

Dillon Honcoop:
I saw it on social media the next day.

Andrew Eddie:
Right? Yeah, well and then you get to the point where you’re working for a couple days straight, pretty much you leave your house, go to work, go back, sleep a little bit and come back. You’re like, “Did I take a shower today? What did I do today?” They’ll be like, “Oh, it’s Thursday.” You’re like, “I was working since Monday, what are you talking about?” So it’s just the concept of time with farming is one of the craziest things too because it’s like okay, what day is it? What time is it? What are we going to do?

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the longest day you’ve worked?

Andrew Eddie:
Recently about two hours. Just kidding, jokes. Oh, shoot probably we’ve had like last year we had a couple … If the weather’s right, actually probably 2018 was probably one of the longer ones we had some days 14, 16 hours and then we’d get down baling probably get out there and start raking at about 4:00, 4:30 in the morning. Take a little break, start baling, get down at about 10:30, 11 o’clock at night and go back about two or three the next morning. Do that for a couple days and I mean, it’s not too bad. I don’t envy the people that do night shift and have to work 12 hours on, 12 hours off and stuff like that. No, no those people, like my wife is a saint. Yeah, managing that and trying to sleep during the day. I’m just like I don’t know how you do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah that’s a tough job.

Andrew Eddie:
Some days are long, some days are short, it all depends. I mean and yeah it varies too. That’s the thing. I think that’s the biggest thing is people going back to the comment about what’s a weekend or can’t you just take a day off? Well yeah, but it’s also like it’s our livelihood. So if we don’t go now, we’re not making money and we’re not making money why are we even doing it? I mean to be honest with you it’s fun, but we don’t do it just for fun. If you did it just for fun, what’s the point?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
I mean if you had a bunch of money to blow, don’t get me wrong then it would be fun. But pretty much every business you want the business to succeed. So how do you do that? You put in the time and the effort and the hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sure would be a lot less stressful if money wasn’t an option huh?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah if the bank roll was just rolling through, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That way if you made a bad decision it wouldn’t be like, “I may lose the farm over this.”

Andrew Eddie:
But on the contrary though, even if it was bank roll and you afforded it, when you start growing a crop and you get it down and it starts getting ruined, you’re like yeah okay now I’m losing money. It’s just like going to the casino, same thing right? It’s like I won 400 bucks and then you’re like, oh never mind. I just lost all of that $400 because I wanted to play for another 20 minutes. It’s the same deal. It’s all a big gamble and a crapshoot for what’s going on. You try everything in your power to get it done right and then one thing comes through and ruins it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Next week on the podcast we’re going to finish the conversation with Andrew. There’s so much more about technology and about family and struggles and his story on the farm and coming back to the farm. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and I’m really glad that you have joined us here. I’d really appreciate it if you subscribed to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. I just noticed maybe on one of the platforms that it wasn’t working right. So please, let me know if you’re experiencing any issues and I can get to work oh that. Dillon@RealFoodRealPeople.org and Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N @RealFoodRealPeople.org. Send me a message, let me know and I can get techy smart people, smarter than me figuring any issues out if you have any trouble subscribing or anything like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Of course RealFoodRealPeople.org is the website and you can follow us on Twitter and on Instagram and on Facebook. We’d really appreciate it and again, like I mentioned earlier you can watch this whole episode on YouTube as well. We’re working on getting more stuff on YouTube. I’m learning the whole video thing as we go here, just making it up and making mistakes and learning from my mistakes. So check us out on YouTube. Subscribe there too, that would really help us out. And again next week is more with Andrew Eddie of RNH Farms, hay farmer in Moses Lake, Washington. Thank you again for being here.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming. Giving a voice to Washington’s farm families, find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at WAdairy.org.

Bridget Coon part 1 | #029 06/29/2020

She used to have an office next door to the White House, but Bridget Coon says she's happy to be back in Washington state, growing beef and hay near the tiny locale of Benge, WA.

Transcript

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
From growing up on a farm in Western Washington to working next door to the White House, then back to Seattle and now farming in Eastern Washington, our guest this week has done so many things and has so much cool professional background, but she also has a really cool personal story. Bridget Coon, she and her husband and their family raise beef on a ranch in Benge, Washington. And as she says on her website, you’re probably going to have to Google where exactly that is.

Dillon Honcoop:
She shares how she got to know her husband, how she ended up in this career in politics and how that eventually led her back to her farming roots. And we also get into some of the sticky issues too, about food and about beef and the controversy. You’re really going to love this one. She’s a lot of fun to hear from and hear her stories. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is the Real Food Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real farmers and ranchers. And this week we talk with Bridget Coon on her ranch in Benge, Washington.

Bridget Coon:
We raise beef out here. It’s this really dry rocky scab land, and so about the only thing you can grow on it is beef. And we also raise hay for premium and export market, and then of course, those two commodities work together on our farm and ranch where we can feed hay throughout the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
So some of your hay is for your cows.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rest you sell to-

Bridget Coon:
Primarily, so we have basically two enterprises or two parts of our family farm with the hay and ranch with the cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how does that work? How do you determine like which land you do hay on and which you do cattle on?

Bridget Coon:
So like I said, most of this is we’re in the channeled scab lands here. It was carved out a million years ago in the Missoula floods, and it’s just a lot of rock. You can’t grow anything. You can’t till it. You can’t farm it. So cows are about the only thing that can come from it that turns into food.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still quite a bit of grass and stuff though, around the rock, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes. So it’s just what we’d call range land, and cattle are really good at taking what’s growing out here and we just do our part to manage the land, determine how many head of cattle can graze a pasture and keep the pasture healthy for us to be able to do this year, decade, generation after generation. That’s kind of our … that’s our job, I mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you tell, like how do you know how many cows to put on a field, cattle I guess I should say.

Bridget Coon:
Cattle, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
I grew up around dairy so all the cows-

Bridget Coon:
All your cows are cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the cattle were cows, yeah. But you have boys and girls.

Bridget Coon:
Yes, we do. So we mostly have, we are what’s considered a cow calf operation or a cow calf ranch. And so what we do is we have a herd of mother cows, and then we have a little squad of bulls and the cows are bred each year to produce a calf each year. And then the calf stay here for about a year nursing their mothers. Eventually weaning, but grazing on this grass. And then those go on to finish at a feed yard before they’re ready for slaughter. And so it’s just really this continuous cycle year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, if we’re doing it well.

Bridget Coon:
And then each year it varies how many cattle we can run on a given pasture based on how much moisture we’ve had based on our decisions the year before and whether or not we are kind of on the money with moisture and that equation. So I’m learning a lot still.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens if you have too many cattle on a certain chunk of land?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, gosh, this is where it gets so complicated because some of the better practices in range land management are actually, if you can put in the time and effort to create smaller paddocks within a pasture, and actually what we’d call intensively graze these cattle. And they come in and they do this really great work by essentially controlling. They control the weed population. They basically graze just the right amount of grass to where it’s left to where it can regrow. And then we move them on to another fresh pasture and only rotate them back to that pasture.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s maybe less about the total number of animals and more about those decisions on timing and moving animals and giving the pasture rest that it needs to come back before you bring cattle back on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because basically, and correct me if I’m wrong, if you have too many cattle on a certain amount of land for too long and they eat it down too far, you’ll basically kill all that grass and stuff, that’s they’re-

Bridget Coon:
It just won’t come back to the level that you want it to. Yeah. You’re like, oh, you’re overworking it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So yeah. So that’s what you’re managing?

Bridget Coon:
You’re really, you’re managing grass. And then of course we have a lot of … we have our animal health and we have our decision making as far as how many cows we decide to be here. Genetics, deciding what type of bulls we’re breeding to our cows. But the basic job on our level of raising beef is managing land so we can grow cattle on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, the cattle are eating this grass on scab land. I saw it driving in like there’s rocks everywhere. So like you said, you can’t farm it. You couldn’t go in there and run a cultivator and plant whatever crop. So is that grass just the grass that’s always been there, or do you kind of like put seed out there or like?

Bridget Coon:
So most of the range land isn’t seeded, but then we have some areas where we can come in and do some supplemental seeding. I know in the past, before I was here, my father in law has worked with WSU on test plots of different types of native grasses that could be seeded or could be managed out here to benefit the range and benefit cattle. So it’s a cool time to be doing this because we have a lot of tradition and a lot of knowledge from generations and generations of doing this. But then we also have some really cool research from the university level and some collaboration we can do there to keep doing what we do better, and that’s kind of the spot that we try to live in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a whole soil health thing, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then like even climate change related.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like carbon sequestration and all that kind of stuff that these practices accomplish, right?

Bridget Coon:
Cows are really cool in that regard. And I think it’s through that overlooked piece of our food system that it’s pretty trendy to just sort of blame everything from climate change to other environmental problems on cattle. But really what we’re able to do with cattle in the US is take ground that could not be used for food production and cattle use it. But I don’t know, I mean, luckily you didn’t hit a deer on your way here, but we have a really-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know my car looks like it.

Bridget Coon:
… healthy meal dealer population, pheasants, quail, you name it, like every everything you can think of as far as other wildlife. So it’s any ground, any land that cattle are using, it’s really a multiple use proposition.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, because a lot of people say, well, cattle are so inefficient because they use all this land to grow the feed for them to eat, to turn into beef that we eat. But I realized as I was driving here after miles and miles of this ground that I saw was loaded with these monster boulders and ravines and just all kinds of rock, like you couldn’t go out there and grow people food.

Bridget Coon:
No, no, that’s definitely a myth where cattle compete for the land we need to grow other food for people. It’s just a myth because when you actually add up the acreage of cattle on range, it’s not competing, it’s actually just adding to the party.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Really cool stuff and I’ve been learning more about the whole soil health thing too. So it was cool to hear you explain this whole like intensive grazing thing, because I had heard about that. And at first I’m like, what, like how does that actually improve soil health? And then I read some books kind of explaining the science of what happens with like a grass plant and when it gets pulled on by a cow, which is kind of like the what? Bovines, which were historically like bison across the plains here.

Bridget Coon:
Ruminant animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was kind of the same thing that they did on these range lands, right? In time in memorial.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, as far as this land, highest best use for sure is running cattle on it. And then it’s up to people like us to make decisions that make it actually feasible as far as environmentally. And then we have to make it somewhat profitable in order to continue to do what we do here. And so when we talk about sustainability, but I mean the definition to, I know like the cattle industry, we really think of it in that, kind of that way where we need to have environmental sustainability, just because its natural resources based.

Bridget Coon:
And we’re the first ones to notice if that natural resource starts to disappear, starts to degrade. And then taking care of the animals, animal welfare, we have to have healthy animals, otherwise it does not turn into the product that we need it to. And then it has to be sustainable economically for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the food question, then what makes great beef? I love an excellent steak. I recently did a London broil and I was like, whoa, this is really different flavor than my sirloin that I usually like to grill and just different thing. I love beef. There’s a lot of flavor going on there. There’s a lot of protein. My body likes it. I know a lot of people … For a long time red meat was like this terrible thing, but I’m more like, I’m not Keto, but like I need my protein and I need to stay away from my carbs. What does it take on your end to create that?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. A lot of people these days are on the protein train and for good reason, because they can just kind of see it’s the food that when you eat it, I mean, you feel good. You feel like it really helps you. We know scientifically it helps as far as maintaining, especially at our age, when you get to your mid 30s or later.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, are you calling me old?

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know, I don’t know how old you are. But I know for myself and some of the research we know is that as soon as we get to a certain age level, if we don’t do things to maintain or grow muscle mass, we start losing it and eating an adequate amount of protein is really important to that. So as far as beef goes, I mean, it’s kind of whatever your preference is, but in the US and on an operation like ours, we are really focused on hitting that prime or choice grade bullseye, which is indicated … the grade is determined by the amount of intermuscular fat or marbling that ends up, the flavor inside those steaks you were just talking about.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not the big chunks of fat around the edges. It’s the stuff that’s in them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. And so what someone who’s enjoying a steak thinks about as far as quality is similar to what I would, as I’m enjoying a steak, but from the people who are actually raising it, it also, again, has to hit those other markers where the cows that we have here need to be bred to actually perform or be healthy here and raise calves each year, and that’s what helps us be sustainable in our business. And then those have calves that end up having those great beef traits as we’ve call it where they’re healthy, they gain weight well and stay healthy while doing it. And then they end up with all kinds of delicious buttery marbling.

Dillon Honcoop:
Stop, you’re making me hungry. But like, if you guys didn’t … like let’s say you manage really poorly hypothetically, would at the end of the day, I’d be able to taste that in the beef? Like oh, this isn’t as good.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not so much what you would taste at the end of the day as it is if it wasn’t an efficient process to get that animal into the final stage of being food, you kind of just end up with a product that is really useful. There’s actually really not any unsafe. Once you get to that level where an animal’s ready for slaughter and it’s slaughtered and it goes through the process when it’s graded, then it’s determined where it goes, right? So I mean, we can all enjoy a five guys hamburger too.

Bridget Coon:
We can all enjoy sort of beef in different contexts. So if you don’t do like this fantastic job with breeding and feeding and finishing and getting to that prime or choice grade, not the end of the world for the person eating, because that product ends up in [inaudible 00:14:21], you know what I mean? There’s so many different ways that beef ends up in kind of our food world that, it’s kind of all good in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is going to be one of those interviews where I just end up really hungry at the end of it.

Bridget Coon:
You staring at the taco soup, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
You just stared at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Bridget Coon:
It’s pretty good. You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going to just forget about that because I don’t want to eat here on the microphone while we’re conversing.

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That just doesn’t sound good to those listening to the podcast.

Bridget Coon:
It’s kind of gross.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. So I’ll eat later, but you mentioned, oh, getting like a five guys burger, there’s so many different places you can get beef. All the way from Mickey D’s to fancy fine dining. How here in Washington, my big focus is I want to get food that’s grown here in Washington, if at all possible. I’m not like mega strict about it, but when it’s possible and doable, I want to do that. How can people do that with beef? How do they know it’s say from Washington or if they don’t know that for sure that it’s at least from the US?

Bridget Coon:
Sure. So there’s a few different ways. Like I said, just like there’s as many varieties of beef that end up on the dinner plate, there’s different ways that people can go about sourcing their beef and making those choices. So the most direct way to know that your beef is coming from a local rancher is to find one that sells directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are more and more doing that?

Bridget Coon:
So interesting you say that. There is a lot of indication as far as like search traffic online and local butcher shops that do this kind of slaughter are getting booked out months if not into next year. So definitely, I think we’ve seen people now in this COVID-19 context, going into the grocery store and seeing space in the meat case that given retailer, pick whatever retailer you go to, and there’s some space there and Americans are not used to seeing that space.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, with that panic buying like a couple months ago, I know I’d never seen empty shelves of any kind in a grocery store, like where they’re legitimately out of food. And I think most anybody in the US who has grown up here and always lived here has never, ever seen that until now. So that’s a big game changer, but from people I talked to, they were already kind of moving in the direction of, “Hey, can we like just sell it right from the ranch one way or the other? Like is there an Amazon for beef, you know?”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. There’s a lot of cool things taking place in this space and watching consumers link up with producers, but keep in mind … So for example, the beef that is raised right out here on this ranch goes to typically a feed yard in Othello. We either retain ownership there where we pay the feeder by the rate of gain or days on feed. But we retain the ownership and then we are paid when those animals are ready and they go down to the packing plant.

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store or generically into restaurants where you’re not seeing a brand, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours. And I think people maybe the impression at this day and age, because we have this big, efficient food supply typically, other than right now, you can go into a Walmart, you can go to Fred Meyer, you can go into a Safeway and you just have like your pick of every cut of beef you could ever imagine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, all the time.

Bridget Coon:
And-

Dillon Honcoop:
The only decision is how much do I want to spend on it, and do I go for the cheaper cut or not?

Bridget Coon:
Exactly. So we are used to all these choices, right? And so then for an outfit like ours, we’re not really close to consumers if you notice. Did you pass a lot of people on your way?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, in fact, I didn’t see anybody for like a half hour before I got here.

Bridget Coon:
So other than like my persuasion to be, I work in the digital space and I find it really fascinating. Some of the digital marketing and different things we could do. My background with my family before coming here was we fed cattle and finished cattle. And so I’m familiar with it and I like it. So it’s always kind of in the back of my mind that we could do some more direct marketing than we have in the past and make it a thing. But it’s not really that efficient.

Bridget Coon:
Like if we’re spending our time doing that, then we have less time to do like the temporary fencing it requires to make these small paddocks, to intensively graze. We have irrigation water to move with the hay. It’s really about all these individual ranches. If you have the human resources and the desire to connect with consumers that way, it’s possible and can be beneficial. But at this time, like it’s probably not the best use of our energy when we do what we do really well, the feed yard that our calves go to, they do what they do really well. They get feed right from around Othello. They get corn and hay, and they get a grape Burmese from the grape stuff. I don’t know what the word is.

Dillon Honcoop:
From wine.

Bridget Coon:
From wine making, and that’s all done closer to them than it is to us. And so feeds kind of come into those animals and they do a great job, and we get the results back that we’re hitting that choice and prime target consistently, and we’re providing that consistent product to typically the consumer desire to have that at will at any grocery store that they go to.

Bridget Coon:
So I mean, interested in it, love to see it. I have a client that we launched a website in order to help them do more of that and sold out an inventory of beef that we projected to last two months in two weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
We have a local beef directory on the beef commission website wildbeef.org. There’s 400% increase in page views on this tool where people in Washington can do it, use a drop down by county and find people that we have listed there that are doing this.

Dillon Honcoop:
These friends of yours that just started going, trying to do some direct sales, they couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to do it.

Bridget Coon:
Totally coincidental. It’s a project we’ve been working on. I know they have been thinking about for a long, long time, and we’d been working on for about a year to get it kind of just so, and we’re kind of ready to roll with that at this time. And so, I mean, for their business and everything, I think actually they’ll be pretty successful consistently. And there’s some interest related to this and I can’t deny it just based on everything else that I see. But if anything, this situation, people who have considered buying directly from a rancher, a lot of that usually involves buying more in bulk. We can only raise … there’s only so many cuts per animal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s not the same as shopping the meat case, I’d say that people-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where you just want the rib-eyes.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. Like there’s only so many rib-eyes. So people have to think of it like going to shop their freezer for beef instead of going to the grocery store to shop it? And so it’s a shift, it’s convenient. I think most things, most foods, new food marketing has focused on convenience because people are busy. Like your life is run by work and activities and people are on the go.

Dillon Honcoop:
But COVID has totally like messed with that, because a lot of people-

Bridget Coon:
At home.

Dillon Honcoop:
… aren’t on the go.

Bridget Coon:
Like baking bread.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re seeing shortages in the grocery store, and even if there is meat there it’s maybe more expensive than it used to be. And so then, like you’re saying, they’re suddenly interested in, “Hey, maybe could I get this like straight from the farmer, straight from the rancher and how would that work?” So it’s totally turning a lot of those things on their head. Like maybe people will suddenly be, I guess we just don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID and how long this goes on and how much of our world continues to be turned upside down. But could this be the moment for local food and for local meat or regional even?

Bridget Coon:
It’s having a moment, and like I said, it’s really cool to see some of those connections being made. Those seeds were already there for a lot of consumers, and this is like pushing them to take action and actually buy from someone or do more in depth research too.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then once they had, they’re like, “Hey, this wasn’t actually so hard,” or like, “I have a relationship now with this ranch, that’s where I get our meat from and we like them.”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. When it’s not really desirable. I mean, some of the consumer research that I’ve seen, people are going to the grocery store multiple times a week. Obviously I can’t relate.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It’s a bit of a drive from where you’re at to the grocery store.

Bridget Coon:
We’re out here. So I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
How far is it by the way?

Bridget Coon:
So there’s a little grocery store in Ritzville, it takes about 40 minutes, but then to like a Safeway, Walmart, Costco, it’s an hour, everything’s like an hour in any direction you can think of. So I don’t have those habits, but I know looking at it, people typically are just sort of going in and out of the grocery store. Well, when you have to wear a mask and there’s like arrows, it’s very, I mean, I’m a little antsy because I don’t go very often and I have to call my friend and be like, “Okay, so what are people doing? What’s socially acceptable in the grocery store right now because I don’t know, because I haven’t been since it started.”

Bridget Coon:
So yeah, you’re taking what was a convenient choice and kind of, it’s not so appealing anymore. And then here’s another choice that maybe wasn’t perceived as convenient, but maybe people will learn that it’s really not as hard. That being said, economically, there’s still only a certain set of consumers that have the savings or have the room to buy in a way that works better for the rancher typically to be efficient. Again, we’re not selling one or two … what would happen if you just only sell individual cuts just from one ranch say our size or maybe a little bit bigger than ours?

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to run out of rib-eyes, you’re going to run about tenderloins. You’re going to end up sitting on these other products. And so I think I’d say if I had any messages, it would be like learn to be a good customer to a rancher that you’re working with, and like let them lead you, expectation-wise on their offering a box that they’ve decided on or they’re offering it by the half or the quarter or the whole, it’s for a reason and it’s because they need to be able to make a living off of this. So just learn what you can. Ask questions and really listen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Buy a freezer.

Bridget Coon:
Get a freezer first. But I’ve heard there’s been a run on freezers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, if you can find one, a lot of people have gotten freezers and you’re talking about this whole convenience thing and people’s money. There’s been a big shift in that too. And I think we’re all really worried that none of us are going to have very much money in coming months and years with the economic forecasts and really scary things like that. But at the same time, like the panic buying and the staying at home changed people’s priorities with that too, where it’s like, oh yeah, I need to spend more of at least the money that I do have right now on my food, because suddenly like survival instinct comes back into play. So maybe I will spend some more money so I can get beef and good food at the store. Like all this panic buying was incredible. To watch what people bought was fascinating to me.

Bridget Coon:
I still am puzzled by water and toilet paper. It not an earthquake.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we’ll never ever figure out the toilet paper one.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not an earthquake. It’s not as tsunami, it’s not a natural disaster. No, I think … I’m kind of the mind that, and this is what kind of annoys me about our food culture today and what I see kind of out there is that everyone wants to have an either or mentality, like this is a good way to buy beef and this is a bad way to buy beef and I have to be able to track it back to the farm, and if I can’t, then I don’t trust it or something. And that’s not how people’s actual buying habits end up taking place except then we all go to five guys or whatever.

Bridget Coon:
But at the end of the day, it’s not either or, it’s and, and so it’s great that there’s choices. And then that again, people are actually acting on some of those choices, but hopefully also learning more about how we raise beef. So when people get really like specific preferences, I want grass fed or finished only, I want organic only or whatever. But to me, I’m seeing a lot of these really, it’s almost like rushing to have a stance, almost like you would a political position, on beef, on food, the types of food choices we make, but they don’t know the difference between a cow and a steer and a bull and a heifer. I mean, in a lot of cases, they just don’t have like the basic knowledge of how we raise cattle. And so to me, it’s odd to like skip into, I have a very defined-

Dillon Honcoop:
They have a stance but they don’t have a-

Bridget Coon:
… preference over what type of beef I have, but I don’t really understand that cattle that are fed grain in a feed yard, spent half their life on grass at a place like this.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was going to ask you about that back when we were talking about feeding cattle and we had Camas Uebelacker here on the podcast for two weeks. I forget the numbers of the episodes, but you can go back and check in the list if you want to, but that’s what he does is like you were describing. You have a cow calf operation, cattle literally out on the range. He takes them, finishes them as a custom operator, kind of specializes in what he does and then they go to harvest.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where they’re fed corn in a lot of cases. He talked a little bit about that. Lot of people say, “Oh, well, corn is bad. I want all grass fed.” You’re explaining already that’s more of a misnomer than maybe people realize, but explain more what’s going on with this whole grass fed versus grain fed.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. It’s just over simplified, and I think some of our more over-simplified messages about food for people who are. They are trying to be conscientious for whether it’s for their health or the environment or whatever it is they feel they care about. But at the end of the day, the actual knowledge of how to take a calf and get it up to a really palatable, really enjoyable beef product it’s not as simple as slapping a label on this was grass-finished or this was, usually it’s grass fed or grain fed, and then people assume that everything else is grain fed, which means they’re like force fed corn their whole lives or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is never the case.

Bridget Coon:
Which is not a thing. In fact, I was just looking at some stats the other day, and it’s the actual amount of corn in a cattle diet over the course of its life is way overstated or just sort of generalized as this really key element in it. When really they’re always fed some kind of roughage, some kind of hay is always in a ration. Chemist did a great job explaining what a cattle feed ration is, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Only those who heard from people who would say, well, cows aren’t designed to eat and digest corn.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not a thing. In fact, so most of the corn that they’re fed is, there’s dry steam flake corn. So that’s also already been processed, think of cornflakes like we eat or whatever. And then you have most of the corn they eat is like siloed and it’s chopped the entire plant. Corn is a type of grass technically. So to say that ruminate animals can’t digest and process and convert a crop like corn into beef efficiently is just scientifically false. It’s nothing.

Dillon Honcoop:
People also say aside from the sustainability conversation, environmental concerns, et cetera, et cetera. They say that grass fed beef has, what is it? Like more omega three fatty acids or something like that? Correct me if I’m wrong on the specifics there.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. The fatty acid ratio.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is the beef actually different. I mean, I have a cousin and her husband, they’re both nutritionists and I talked with them about it and they’re like yeah, omega threes are super trendy right now, but you don’t need too many of those, and omega six is kind of like, whoa, it’s bad. It’s from corn, but you don’t need too many of those, but you can’t live without any, like it’s way more complicated once they started explaining it.

Bridget Coon:
Right. So to simplify it, but not oversimplify it, the fatty acid ratio. So it’s that six to three ratio is what is usually referred to, is so slightly different between grain finished and grass finished beef. It’s marginal first of all. Again, the intermuscular fat that we’re talking about actually has a similar fatty acid profile too, like olive oil, which would be considered like a healthy fat, which is some people don’t really realize.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not know that.

Bridget Coon:
But then further, because I feel like now I’ve gone down this rabbit trail, but it needs to be addressed that the beef people are never going to say like, get your omegas from beef because it’s not … beef is essential, I mean, it has essential nutrients and it’s a great source for several proteins, zinc, iron are the top three, right? But there’s actually quite a few, the omegas aren’t in there. Go eat salmon, go get a copper river salmon. Use an actual significant source to get your omegas.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s interesting you said copper river salmon. I have a good friend who’s a lifetime fisherman. He’s like a whole copper river thing. That’s just-

Bridget Coon:
Marketing, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all marketing.

Bridget Coon:
That’s genius marketing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which we’re saying about … you’re talking about beef and I could tell you marketing things about other crops and stuff that what is really underneath it, and when you talk to the farmer, they’re like yeah, you get a whole different story. That’s why I’m doing this podcast to talk to the farmers rather than the marketing people.

Bridget Coon:
It’s to the point where you just, I literally assume when I’m seeing or reading something about an industry that I’m unfamiliar with and it feels simplified or oversimplified. I’m just like, yeah. If I want to know more about this, I need to go read some more because I have a feeling that this is meant to sell me something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s our generation now too, right?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, just being skeptical or just being marketed to by people who try to make you dumber.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both.

Bridget Coon:
I do. I think of … So I do fill some marketing roles in my work and I kind of keep that mantra of, I don’t want to make people dumber. Like if I do anything with this work it’s to shed some light on areas of the process of getting food to people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you telling me you do marketing yet you still have a soul?

Bridget Coon:
I am a soulful marketer.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s good.

Bridget Coon:
I started, I mean, I really started out my career more in advocacy and more like, I’m just more of a … I was like a nerdy kid that listened to … I grew up on the west side [case 00:34:00], but we had a feed yard and a family ranch. Right? Actually, we raised hay. I think my first job in life was to sell sweet corn that we grew, pick it and sell it on the roadside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was this?

Bridget Coon:
In the Green River Valley, Auburn and Kent. So my grandparents and my parents and my brother and I, kind of all worked together since I was a little kid. And so that’s a really urban market even back in the 90s. So it’s kind of second nature to me to be communicating to people who don’t have a firsthand understanding of like farming and ranching because I was doing it since birth. But it makes me want to help people understand. And yeah, just I’ve been attracted and had the opportunity to do work that’s allowed me to continue that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you end up here in Eastern Washington and on a cow calf operation, but also doing digital marketing work and all kinds of stuff online and like what was the road from there to here?

Bridget Coon:
Winding?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
Windy. Yeah, so I grew up on a farm and feed yard, family operation on the west side. I was probably influenced by obviously at that time Ag wasn’t like a growing industry over there. Again, the dinner table conversations and just sort of the activity around the farm. I was really aware of like regulatory framework that was growing, whether it was water issues or endangered species act issues, whatever it was. Seattle area is like the epicenter. I feel like everything else, as far as like our environmental culture right now, it’s just catching up to like kind of where things were a decade or two ago in the Seattle area as culturally, right?

Bridget Coon:
So I paid attention to that as a little kid, I ended up at WSU, Go COUGS. And I had been really encouraged in writing, and so based on sort of not knowing if I had this role in production agriculture going forward and being kind of encouraged in other ways, I ended up with a policy pre-law degree because I thought maybe I could be an attorney and like go fight the good fight for farmers or something, right? I wasn’t sure where it would go. And then I did some campaign work and some like rabble rouse, like conservative or Republican rabble-rousing on campus.

Bridget Coon:
And anyway, campaign jobs that beget appointment in the Bush Administration. So I went from Pullman, basically straight from Pullman to DC as a young 20 something. And so I got to spend a few years out back East where you can get a lot of experience in a short amount of time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of stuff were you doing back East?

Bridget Coon:
So my first job back there was … I didn’t even know when I started volunteering for campaigns and then getting like staff campaign jobs. I got to run around Eastern Washington, which was really cool, that was my territory, and so I love it. I already knew I loved it out here. But I didn’t even know there was like low level appointments that you could get from supporting the president, in this case is president Bush’s re-election in 2004. And so other people I worked with were like, give us your resume.

Bridget Coon:
And so I started out at the most boring federal agency. I don’t know if you can guess which one, the GSA, the General Services Administration, we buy pencils and bombs. I worked for the Chief of Staff there and government procurement was like not like my thing. So actually my boss out here in the campaign had ended up landing a job in the Political Affairs Office, they kind of staff up during the cycle. So during the 2006 cycle, I was his what they call desk coordinator where I just wrote briefing papers, for any time like the president or vice president or first lady, whoever was traveling, we’d have to sort of update these briefing documents that they would presumably read on their way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were writing stuff that the president was reading.

Bridget Coon:
So I wouldn’t go that far because I was never on like Air Force One to confirm that. My boss was and so sometimes he’d have some stories to come back to you, but I will say I had a weird experience where I was in my office there, it’s in the Eisenhower, the EOB building next door to the West Wing. And I’m there like doing my thing at my desk and the TV was on and it was a live feed of I think it was a rally in Montana and that was in my territory that I had to cover for my work and the president’s giving his remarks.

Bridget Coon:
And I’m like, man, that sounds familiar. And I still had like the document because the speech writers, they didn’t always ask us, but sometimes they’d ask us for bullet points to incorporate. And so I was feeling pretty high on life to hear the president-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your briefing document probably made it to the speech writer who worked some of your words.

Bridget Coon:
No, we actually did talking point sometimes. So these were actually talking points that the speech writers asked for, in addition to our typical briefing papers. I do know that Karl Rove actually read them because one time this is where I also almost died and fell over on the floor because there was like a weird anomaly in one of the Montana counties and Karl’s going through this briefing paper and we put historical election results in it and he thought it was wrong because it was like a weird flip on like whatever the congressional district results was.

Bridget Coon:
And so my boss is calling me because he’s traveling with Karl Rove, they’ve just flew commercial and stuff like he wasn’t on Air Force One or anything, but he’s calling me from the road being like, “You need to look at these numbers and check them.” I was like, “Oh my God, did I just get that wrong?” Freaking out, and then luckily it was correct. But that was like weird. I mean, it’s just like I found myself in some weird spaces. And again, just getting this great experience to then I would say like some of the stuff I did out there was pretty intense.

Bridget Coon:
And again, like if people like that are reading something you’re writing it needs to be accurate. It needs to be a certain degree of it’s going to be out in public. It’s made other things that I’ve done that maybe are a little bit stressful or pressure full, is that a word?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s a good word. I’ll keep that one if that’s okay.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not as … Not that many things seem that hard after that. Fast forward and I’m trying to like work with kids and also now being a homeschool mom, like I am humbled. I don’t care what I’ve done in the past. I am supremely humbled by trying to manage this household and everything we do at the ranch and my business and stuff, but it’s been weird I must say.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. To continue on this road though, to back up a little bit, like I know from hearing from a lot of people like, oh, the holy grail is to make it back to DC for a lot of different things that people do. And then once people are out there, they’re like, ah, I hate this city. I hate how everything works in this town and how people are so fake and yada, yada, I just want to get back home. And so how did you extricate yourself from that world and end up back here?

Bridget Coon:
I went out without an exit plan. I really wasn’t sure, I was 22, maybe when I landed out there and I have a little bit different perspective. I probably didn’t stay up there long enough to be completely jaded, maybe that’s part of it, but I really do. I think I met and worked with some of the best people that you’ll ever meet and some of the worst people, that’s universal. I feel like, so it’s not like the people are worse, I guess I’ll put it this way. I can’t be that jaded because I got my hands on some like cool stuff.

Bridget Coon:
As a very young person with just really like the best intentions to just … I’m not going to sit back and complain about things, I’m going to get in there and kind of put my energy in places. So I feel like I thrived pretty well. I sold my pickup and like flew out there with a couple of suitcases. I mean, I really, I kind of just whole sale, I lived on Capitol Hill. After that stint in 2006 at the White House, I ended up getting a job at a firm that is based in Bellevue Washington Advocates is what it’s still called. The principal’s there worked for Slade Gorton, Senator Slade Gorton. So they were awesome people to work with.

Bridget Coon:
And then that set of clients that we did public affairs work, basically were lobbyists. But we worked with dirt and water clients. So I started at that point, I started kind of like finding my way back home to agriculture, at least working on agriculture issues. They represented the PDs that run our hydropower dams, Chelan County, PUD, those kind of things I got sort of getting sharp on those types of issues that are really important here in Washington where [houser 00:43:05] at the time there was a big conflict with the tribes and the shellfish growers and so shellfish growers are farmers. I don’t think I’ve probably ever really thought about it like that when I was younger, but I was like, man, these are farmers and they have all these like similar issues, but it’s shellfish.

Bridget Coon:
And so I got to work on cool projects that directly related back to agriculture and the Pacific Northwest based on the people that this company worked for. And then I kind of got poached from there back to Dino Rossi’s gubernatorial campaign in 2008, and that’s how I ended up back in Washington. Not sure if I would stay after doing a eight month campaign stint, but I got a master’s degree in there somewhere. I don’t like-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been busy.

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know. Like I wasn’t as tired as I am now. Is that weird? I feel like, maybe I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know the feeling. I totally know the feeling.

Bridget Coon:
You know it, you get it. I packed a lot in during that sort of like time in my 20s and ended up back in Washington. And then after that campaign, we lost, this happens and you need a new job or even when you win you need a new job. So from there I ended up working for Reagan Dunn on the King County council. So I worked at downtown Seattle in the courthouse and I did agriculture land use and communications for him. So I started finding my way into this sort of like jobs I didn’t know existed when I was even in college and this direction that while I had sort of just been taking great opportunities that presented themselves to me through networking and just where I was being led.

Bridget Coon:
I did stop at one point, I was like, oh, I guess I am doing what I really probably, as a young person thought I could be useful doing. And then my parents were still farming in that area. So I would just on the weekends I was at their place, but yeah, I was probably … figured out that I was like the only person on the 12th floor of the King County courthouse involved in policymaking for the council that had any agriculture background whatsoever. So I felt the need to like get in there and make sure that some of those interests were being represented. And then again, these issues that can be oversimplified walked back and explained.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then how did you end up in Eastern Washington, because we got you all the way to DC-

Bridget Coon:
We’re back.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and then all the way back to Seattle-

Bridget Coon:
We’re almost back. Sorry this is a long story. I know it’s a long story.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now we’ve got to get you … No, you said lots of twists and turns, so I wanted to hear them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, it’s interesting. And so it’s like I find it interesting when I stopped. I don’t often stop and think about it. Nobody has time for that, but after working for Reagan, Patty over at the Beef Commission dialed me up and she was looking for someone in like in consumer information space that at that time the Beef Commission board had said, “Hey, we want to really invest in telling the production side.” Like they’re seeing that people have more interest in how food’s raised, but like the knowledge gap is really vast. And then we’re getting all these sort of negative myths developing around how we raise cattle.

Bridget Coon:
And so that’s why I was attracted to it. I mean, I like cooking beef. Like I love eating and cooking beef. But I wasn’t attracted to the job to like teach people how to make chili with five ingredients or I mean, I do, I will say like, searing, I love smoking my trigger. I mean, there’s some cool stuff to do with meat, it’s one of my hobbies, but I really was like, this is an opportunity to take things like so full circle back to the industry that I grew up in and do that communications work that clearly needed to be done and still needs to be done today. And so that was like 2010, and I just sort of right after I started that job coincidentally that my now husband, he is a rancher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was he already doing that at that time?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. So his dad … how did this work? So it’s like literally the second or third day on the job was like the Washington Cattleman’s convention. It was over in Sancadia. And it’s one of those instances where you’re the new person and everyone meets you, but you don’t necessarily meet everyone. And I had some interaction with Dick Coon, my now father-in-law because one of my first projects that first week was reviewing some ad, some radio ads that he had voiced.

Bridget Coon:
And then also there was some copy and they’ve spelled Benge where we are now, they spelled it wrong. And I knew that because I’d been traveling 26 past the sign to Benge, to WSU, to Pullman all those years before.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now you live in Benge.

Bridget Coon:
And here I am. But anyway, so I’d had just light interaction with Dick and I didn’t know what was going on yet. I was just trying to get with my job. I mean, that’s the zone I’d been in at that point since college and so … I don’t know if I should go into this, you can cut it out, but it’s kind of funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
This means it’s about to be the best part of the interview when people say that, you know something good is coming, so you must carry on that.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s funny, it’s a little funny. This is kind of hilarious and I still find it a little bit hilarious. So my now family, my in-laws were all there at the convention. And my now brother-in-law, my now husband was on the way and he was just joining everyone. And apparently my now brother-in-law kind of like saw me in the hallway and didn’t know anything about me yet, right? But he’s texting him, like you need to get here and you need to like, maybe meet this person, you know like.

Bridget Coon:
So this is all happening, I have no idea this is happening. He gets there. So the Beef Commission meeting is going on. This is my first board meeting. And I’m like pretty like trying to figure out what I’m doing here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoned in on the work.

Bridget Coon:
Zoned in, and these two dudes come in to the meeting and I remember Patty leaning over to me and saying, “Who are those guys?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just started,” because she likes to know who’s in the meetings. So I had no idea, never met him and then fast forward to January. So it was November, January, a few months later. There’s a program up that WSU did and it was for everyone from a rancher, to a feed yard employee, to a packer. It’s like this cool course about beef, everything from like genetics and like range management to, we made sausage and we looked at grading the rib-eyes that the grade that they come in with. It’s a-

Dillon Honcoop:
A beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
Beef boot camp, but that’s not what they called it but they should have. Anyway, so last minute-

Dillon Honcoop:
I didn’t even plan on the alliteration for that.

Bridget Coon:
So much alliteration, so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome.

Bridget Coon:
So anyway, my father-in-law and my now husband kind of last minute decided because there were like an hour from Pullman here, decided to join as attendees, and then the Beef Commission is sponsored to a degree. And so I was kind of sent over to write it up and do some promotion after the fact. And so you’re so really new and I’m like, everyone’s just so nice, but really like he was talking me up, he was chatting me up the whole two or three days as this thing was going on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait a second. So he just happened to decide to go to this beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
I didn’t even know I was going until like a few days before, because we weren’t … it was kind of not essential.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, he wasn’t-

Bridget Coon:
So that part, there was no stocking.

Dillon Honcoop:
… working his angles here.

Bridget Coon:
There was like no stocking, it was actually completely … So it’s funny, is like he didn’t shoot his shot in November and I didn’t know he existed. And then in January here we are again and these circles are small in an industry like ours. So not to say that it’s completely out of the blue, but it was not, it was just sort of a coincidence. And he, yeah like by the end of the week, he’s like, “Hey, can I call you sometime or maybe come visit?” Because I lived on the west side, I lived in Auburn and so anyway, I finally let him come visit me like in February, and then he-

Dillon Honcoop:
You say that, so you let him come-

Bridget Coon:
I was in the career zone, man. I was not thinking about this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody talks about friend zone, but is this a step even farther than friend zone?

Bridget Coon:
No, no. There was a lot of text messages. Like if you were to-

Dillon Honcoop:
You career zoned him.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I didn’t obviously. This is why, so then things got real. Things got real so fast. Anyway, so finally I think he came over for like Super Bowl weekend or something and I made him go to a hockey game with like 20 of my friends and family because I’m like that person, the facilitator of fun, like in the family, like that’s kind of my role. And so I was like, “Let’s go to a hockey game, but let’s get a group rate and like get tee shirts or whatever.” So I put them through the paces. We like had to go stop at the beauty shop and like meet my grandma. And like, it was a whole thing, but he was undeterred. And so that was like the beginning of February. He proposed on mother’s day that year, so that’s how I can remember it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holy smokes.

Bridget Coon:
So that was May, and then we’re just kind of going with it. We’re just like sending it, is the only way I can describe it. And so that was May-

Dillon Honcoop:
This whole thing was moving along rather slowly until you suddenly said, you first actually really hung out in February or like dated, whatever you want to call it, and you were engaged to him by mother’s day.

Bridget Coon:
He was highly intentional.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess.

Bridget Coon:
Which I hear is not really a quality of millennials dudes these days, but he was all on board, and so we’re engaged in May and then we got married October 1st.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
So I actually didn’t know what would become of like my job and which is not the greatest feeling to me because I really care about this type of work and it was really things are going in this direction. And so it was really Patty, my boss that got creative and I had been doing a lot, obviously a lot more of our work is done online. You can do it from anywhere. And so we were able to sort of do a lot of different gyrations with that job that allowed me to stay doing it to a degree. Like I said, I was pregnant 2.6 seconds after we got married. In fact, I didn’t even live here yet.

Bridget Coon:
So essentially we got married October 1st. December 1st was when I moved here and even then I had some events swing that week. And in between that time it was like Thanksgiving. And I was like, okay, I think something’s up, and he like came over for Thanksgiving. And so we had to tell my grandma, like we said, I think we announced it. Like we were thankful. You’re going around and like, what you’re thankful for. And I said, “We’re thankful for fertility.” And my grandmother whose like 90 years old at the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
She cleared in right away?

Bridget Coon:
I mean, her eyes got so big. It’s just like one of those best moments. But she’s passed now and so I just have some of these great moments to be … she was involved in and got to hold our son. But we got to do this sort of announcement on Thanksgiving.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s so awesome.

Bridget Coon:
But I thought it would be a long winter at least on the ranch. So it was really like, oh, I should probably like get doctors, and it was this-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Bridget Coon:
So life has been pretty fast paced.

Dillon Honcoop:
In less than a year’s time, that was a lot of stuff.

Bridget Coon:
That’s a lot, but I kind of, change has never really bothered me. And I kind of always wondered where I would land in life probably because of that, because I was never like, I want to be an accountant and I will do this. And I tried to be really open minded about having like a suburban life or an urban life, and it’s just none of that ever took. So in some cases it seems like kind of crazy to be out here, but really to me it like feels right. Living next door to family, we had that type of setup growing up.

Bridget Coon:
And so to have my kids see their grandparents, their great grandmother lives next door here. We were just planting vegetables and seeds in the garden the other day. And so I go from like, “Hey, I need to focus on explaining to people why our processing plants are slowed down,” and there’s like space in the meat case, in a situation like this and work on those tougher issues. And then I’m like, “Let’s go plant some vegetables in the garden with Nana,” because I mean, we need to do these things and we have this ability to do it here.

Bridget Coon:
So I really couldn’t be more thrilled at how things kind of have shaken out. And my husband and I have these conversations sometimes. Even like after really hard days, which are just sucky days where things just go wrong and they can go wrong with your kids. They can go wrong with my work. They can go wrong with the ranch. And like some days can be pretty rough. And it’s not enough just like scenic out here well, but like there’s been more than a few times where we’ve stopped and been like, “Yeah, I don’t really care. I feel like this is where I would want to be.” And so you can’t really deny that feeling. And so I’ve kind of just started going with it, several years ago and it’s only grown it hasn’t sort of … so luckily like really short term decisions have worked out.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the part where I say, but wait, there’s more, that’s just part one of the conversation. And she shares so much more of her story and insight into food and farming and ranching and what’s going on in the world. Bridget Coon part two is next week, so make sure to stay tuned for that, make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. People keep asking me, “Where can we find your podcasts?” Pretty much on any of the podcasts platforms out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I have been mentioning to people and I’ll say this to you as well, if there is a platform that I’m not on that you think I should be, send me a message dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address, right to my phone. I’ll see it right away and I’ll figure out if there’s any way to get on that platform, we’ll do it. Also, @rfrp_podcast on Instagram and Real Food Real People podcast on Facebook. Don’t forget to follow us there. What is it? @rfrp_podcast as well on Twitter. So make sure to connect with us there and continue to follow along as I travel all over Washington State to meet and really get to know the people behind our food.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org. And by dairy farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Derek Friehe | #028 06/22/2020

Just because a farm is big doesn't necessarily mean it's not a family farm. Derek Friehe shares the story of his family's roots, and his unconventional path back to farming.

Transcript

Derek Friehe:
I’m gonna go through some of those bad years. I’m not just… It’s my land, it’s where I grew up, it’s many cases, my parents or grandparents are buried here, it’s where I want to raise my kids. It’s more… Yeah, it’s not just a job.

Announcer:
This is The Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Every time I interview a person behind our food here in Washington State, there’s some new cool twist. This week certainly isn’t any different with Derek Friehe and his family’s roots in Europe, and how that came to Washington State, his background in the corporate world and coming back to the farm. He’s got a lot to share. We get into also what’s happening right now with COVID and how it’s affected potato… Washington State here is one of the biggest potato-growing regions in the country, and they’ve been very hard hit by all the market disruptions and things that happen with potatoes and people not going to restaurants anymore and buying French fries. That’s actually been a huge thing for folks. So, he shares all of it, lots of story to get to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for joining us this week. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this podcast, The Real Food Real People podcast, is documenting my journey all over Washington. This time we go to Moses Lake, and we hear again from Derek Friehe of Friehe Farms, a big farm but still with family roots and it’s all about the family still as large as they’ve gotten in, and that’s a really cool part of this too. So often, farms are judged by how big or small they are, and I think that’s the wrong criteria to use because there are big farms that are great. It’s not about the size of the farm and you’ll hear that in Derek’s attitude and just his whole outlook on why he does what he does in growing food. Join with me in getting to know Derek Friehe of Friehe Farms in Moses Lake, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been doing the farming thing your whole life. You’re multiple generations into this, right?

Derek Friehe:
Second generation.

Dillon Honcoop:
Second?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, so I’ve been back on the farm five years. I mean, I grew up on the farm and then has gone for like eight years down in California. I went to school down there. Yeah, second-generation farmer. My dad actually emigrated from Germany over 30 or 35 years ago and kind of settled. He married my mom who’s American. She is from Seattle and so he kind of discovered the Northwest and sold the little farm over there and started here and it was bad time to be farming, good time to have opportunities to buy land, and so he just started small and found this area just at east of Moses Lake that was started developing. And yeah, it’s grown quite a bit since he took it over 35 years ago. My brother and I are then back five to six years now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you and your brother are in the farming operation now, but had both left the farm?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We actually went to the same school down in California, and we weren’t studying ag so it’s weird. My dad was trying to figure out what to do with the farm, how to transition out of it himself while hoping to get some family back, but at the time we weren’t studying ag. We both studied business, which proved to be really helpful, but still-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Derek Friehe:
… it’s definitely… I mean, you got to know your stuff, like agronomy-wise, if you want to be successful, so that’s been the steepest learning curve. I enjoy the business side and that’s kind of both. But yeah, farming is just a lot of experience. Just year over year knowledge gain, but yeah, it’s nice to have some of the theory behind it and I’ve got supplemented with ag classes here and there, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, do you wish that you would have gone to school for-

Derek Friehe:
I don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
… real agronomy or farming or something-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in agriculture?

Derek Friehe:
In some ways, yeah. I wish I would have, but then that’s a counterfactual. You go back and what if… I met my wife there, some of my best friends, awesome experiences shaped who I am now and so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what-

Derek Friehe:
… education standpoint, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what was your plan at that point? Like what were you wanting to do?

Derek Friehe:
I didn’t know. I was two years undecided down there, trying to figure it out. I mean, yeah, farming… You’ve heard it before. It’s always like in the back of your mind. If you’ve grown up on it, it’s kind of in your blood. So, even you, you didn’t go back to the farm but you’re still involved in Ag.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
Always in the back of my mind. Even going in business is still in the back of my mind like, “Oh, at least the farm’s a business,” and even after post college I’m going into like food-type businesses. Even if those were corporate, but it’s still the food direction with maybe the idea of going back one day and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you knew about that stuff, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were a kid, what was your dad doing farming-wise? How big was the farm? What was he farming at that point?

Derek Friehe:
Every year it seemed like he was growing… I mean, potato is kind of the mainstay of the farm. That’s where a lot of the growth came from. He didn’t farm any potatoes in Germany, so he worked for a farm west of town for years, just kind of learning the ropes of this area, and then he bought one field and then another field. Then, at some point, I think he rented out his ground and somebody else farmed potatoes on his ground and he was just, I think, standing by the side of the field one day and was like, “I could do that. It’s ridiculous. Somebody coming into my field and growing a beautiful spud crop.” Again, a lot of the principles in ag are the same. Potato is a whole different level than like wheat, for example. Now, he’s a good farmer. He had educational background from Germany, and he was good at what he did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that family history is fascinating. You said he did farm in Germany as well?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, he did. If you’ve ever been over there, all the land is farmed. There’s not a lot of new development. It’s generations of farms that had been kind of held together and there’re all small and kind of broken up. There’s not a lot of big farms. There’s not a lot of opportunity for him, and he was very entrepreneurial, risk taker. There wasn’t that there any room to grow. In those times, it was an okay farm. But for our standards, it was like one field’s worth. It was like 130 acres and that was big over there. So, I think being exposed here and marrying my mom, coming over here, he was like, “Dang, there’s a lot of room to grow here.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
Like I said, the farming wasn’t great. Wheat prices are like two bucks. It was time to get in, even though you weren’t making a ton of money, people are going broke, and so it was a combination of good timing, luck, skill, being an opportunist and risk taker.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did he meet… You said your mom’s from Seattle, how did he meet her? How did that all go down?

Derek Friehe:
She was an exchange student so she was over there, actually in a village like 20 minutes away from where he grew up. I don’t actually think they met there. I think they met in Vienna, somehow randomly. That’s where they met, connected there and then, I think after that they were like, “Oh well.” I don’t know if they ever made the connection that she was staying like… They must have made some kind of connection because when they went back, that’s when they hit it off and had a longer engagement back and forth, and eventually came back here and got married. Actually, my older sister was born over there and then a few months after she was born, they came back, settled here permanently.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you speak German?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man, I used to be pretty good at it. No, I should’ve taken Spanish.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
No, I went to language school over there for a bit. We were always going over there pretty much every other year or so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Quite a bit of family back in Germany still-

Derek Friehe:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that you’re connected with?

Derek Friehe:
It was mostly my grandma lived over there. He only had one sister. They only had one kid, not a huge extended family. Just when my grandma was still alive we’d go back over there. But yeah, not as much anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grow up around him, starting to grow this farm. He’s an outside-the-box thinker trying to do something different, bigger, better, and it was all potatoes when you were a kid, or was he already branching out into other stuff too? Because you, guys, do all kinds of stuff.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. And potatoes, especially if you’re on the ground, you got to rotate it so you’re doing potatoes, let’s say, every four years so you’re doing other crops in between.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
That’s just the big one that takes most the financial risk and time, money, people. He was doing wheat, corn, things to rotate around now. But yeah, now we’ve delved into organics, a lot of forage crops. Yeah, probably 15 different crops that we do. Most of it, again, is potatoes. So, it’s all kind of rotating around that for the most part.

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing up here, what was it like moving down to basically LA where your school was?

Derek Friehe:
It was a big change, but that’s part of the allure of growing up in a small town and wanting to figure things out and see the big city. I don’t know. I was into sports like high school or so. I got to play soccer down there and, I don’t know, I had the beach and tons of people and they’re just different. My sister had gone there, so I was exposed to it and knew what to expect. It was a good school and, again, I didn’t know I want to be a farmer, so I wasn’t like, “Oh, am I go to WSU or something?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it was good. The biggest change probably happened when we had our first kid, so that was kind of the game changer. I loved my job, I liked being down there, a lot of friends, community, but then you have a kid there. Except this tiny little house that’s way overpriced, commuting an hour and a half every day to work, and it just hits you like, “What am I doing here? I don’t want to raise a family here.” It takes, I think, a little bit for some people to go out and experience that before for coming back, so definitely I appreciate a lot more. You have a different boss, you work for a different company, you get a… I don’t know, you learn a lot as opposed to just coming straight back. So, definitely I appreciate it a lot more.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like making that decision? Like, “Okay, we’re going to pack up, we’re going to move back to the farm”?

Derek Friehe:
My brother actually moved back a year before, so he was kind of the test case, like he’s moving back. We kind of keep an eye on how he’s doing, how he’s liking it, and so that definitely helped because it’s definitely a big move. But again, after having a kid and more kids, you want to be close to family, you want to be close to grandparents and have the free babysitting and the community support, and you start thinking long term and made sense from a… and just way of life. I love working outside in my hands, but then you get the challenges of the business side, I can kind of bring my business experience to it, too. So, yeah, it was a little bit of a leap of faith, but also it’s home, it’s not crazy. A lot of people move all over the country into new places, and this wasn’t a new place, it was familiar, so it wasn’t hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
How was it for your dad? I mean, when you tell him, “Hey, yeah, I want to come back to the farm.” Was he pumped about that? Was he like, “Wow, you got to kind of prove yourself”? I know that’s how my dad would be.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. He’s pumped in his own way, he’s German, he’s stoic, he’s… He was pretty excited. You could tell you he was pretty happy. He worked so hard to build this up, and I could see you get up in age and you’re thinking about legacy and what am I passing on and built it up for what? He was wanting to retire and he’d gotten into flying, and so he was doing a lot of that. He was looking for definitely the next generation to step up. Actually, all four of us kids had at some point been all over the country and then we all came back.

Derek Friehe:
Right now, all of us are either in town or my sister is an hour away, but she was an accountant. She was a CPA down in LA, and then eventually came back to the farm for a year before getting married so she was in accounting so she’s in the farm and then… So yeah, everybody’s away and then within two years, everybody’s back. I think they are pretty happy about that. Of course, all the grandkids come and we’re the first one to have a kid and within… Well, he’s now 7 and now there’s 14 grandkids so just…

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, there’s something I love is just because you come back to a small town and get the family element, you got the support structure and let’s have kids and go down to the city and one, two kids, maybe per family. [crosstalk 00:13:19].

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Derek Friehe:
It’s definitely easier to have bigger families and get that support.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Derek Friehe:
I got four.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four kids.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Sister has five, brother has three, youngest sister has two.

Dillon Honcoop:
It just sounds tiring to have that many children running around.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two but-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. No, it’s… I mean, I tell my wife, she works way harder than I do. I can do it, so it’s up to her if we have any more because she’s the one putting in the long days and I come home, I get to play with them, and she’s the one dealing with all the fights and, yeah, pretty amazing what mothers, stay-at-home mothers, they work hard but it’s fun. I love being a dad. I can’t imagine life without them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to you come back to the farm, what does your dad have you do right away? Because on one hand, it’s like, “Well, you’re new here,” but on the other hand, you’re coming in with a business degree and business experience. Did he throw you in a tractor or did he say, “Get in the office and you’re now going to be dealing with our business dealings,” and things like that?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I think a little bit of both. I think, yeah, it’s hard because at least I was used to that corporate-type life, making big decisions or at least being part of them and then start on the bottom a little bit. I did a little bit of tractor work. I did most tractor in high school and harvest and all that, so I had some experience there. But yeah, definitely kind of grunt doing stuff that like we have high schoolers doing now or interns. So, you do all that first couple of years and get your feet wet there.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it was frustrating, it’s like, “Ah, I should be doing a lot more,” but it’s also laying the foundation and learning a little bit of everything. It’s that tension of, “Yeah, I want to move up quick.” But you can only move up having that ground layer of experience, doing everything, so yeah. It’s also a big farm now, so it’s not like I’m coming back and having to do everything. We have awesome tractor drivers, that’s all they do. They sit on the tractor all day and they’re really good at it. And for me to come, they don’t necessarily need me to come in and do it, as opposed to just a father-son operation where you’re coming in like, “No, sorry, you’re doing everything.” I feel like I still have ton to learn. I’m already six years into this and in some ways, I’m still scratching the surface on a lot of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting. You come from the corporate world. A lot of people say that family farming doesn’t really exist. They’re all big corporate farms. Having come from the corporate world, what’s your reaction to that? Now being in this operation, it’s big. You, guys, farm a lot of acres, got a lot of employees but is it the same as like working for a corporation?

Derek Friehe:
No, not at all. No. Just even you’re stuck in an office all day, you’re all dressed up. It’s meeting after meeting and you’re sitting in front of a computer doing Excel spreadsheets. There’s still a little bit of that here, but it’s not the same at all, especially for a big farm, it feels like a family operation. We got good farm managers and hopefully some amount of organizational structure, but it’s not the same deal. We’re big, we got 50 full-time employees, but I think in the corporate world, that’s pretty small from most of those big corporations.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres do you farm between all the different crops you, guys, have?

Derek Friehe:
Probably around 10,000.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people can’t… Even for me coming from Western Washington farming, which is so much smaller. It’s more the size of what you’re talking about your dad doing in Germany, right? That’s hard for me to fathom, but then for you to explain, “No, it’s still like a family. It’s run by the family.” Yeah, you have 50 employees but compared to a big corporation, like you say, that’s nothing.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the ethos of the company? Like when I came in here, I’m seeing signs all over, with COVID going on and thanks for what you do, essential farm employees, seems to be a really upbeat positive kind of vibe you, guys, have here.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I’d like to think so. Hopefully, it starts with leadership and there’s good leaders kind of setting the tone. Farmers by nature have to be optimist, I think, just to keep coming back year after year, so there’s definitely a positive energy, I think, most the time and I think all the COVID stuff. In some ways it’s helped, I think, with the perception of farmers. I think if people went to the grocery store and then all of a sudden, they’re not seeing food on the shelves, I think they start to, it’s just never happened before. I think most people think food grows in the groceries. I don’t know where they think their food comes from. But as soon as it’s not there then they start to wonder like, “Oh, food’s a big deal,” and then you trace it back to who’s growing it and where it’s coming from and, I think, hopefully there’s more of an appreciation for who grows it, supply chains and distribution centers that can get it to you. But yeah, it’s definitely essential. It’s definitely affected our industry for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But no, I think our folks had done a good job of trying to be safe and be smart about how we’re within six feet of each other and doing something trying to, I don’t know if you saw the guy when he first came in, he was cleaning doorknobs and just trying to keep things clean and in my mind, just common sense stuff that maybe we should probably do normally, but it’s only COVID stuff. For us, it was nice because we weren’t all that affected like we got plenty of people that are out of work and sitting at home and… We’re busy, and I don’t really feel the effects too much, which is nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, you have space. You don’t all have to be crowded together in an office most of the time.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Farming by nature is socially distant, which I prefer.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve been hearing a lot though about how brutal COVID has been for a lot of different farm markets, meat, dairy, milk being dumped, and then also potatoes and especially here in Washington State, other places too. But I know here in Washington State, we heard stories of potatoes with nowhere to go. How’s that hit you, guys?

Derek Friehe:
It’s definitely affected us on kind of two fronts. It kind of hit during planting which is, we’re northern basin so we’re a little later planting. When we get the news, we hadn’t even started planting yet, so we are able to… I mean, you still have a quarter to a third of your cost in the field already before you even plant the seed. So, we did get cut some of our acres and the processors said, “Hey, you got to cut, let’s say, 10% of your acres.” And so we got to go out and try to find stuff that’s what can we cut that doesn’t have too much money into it. Those are real dollars that have been spent that have basically gone away. But luckily, we had some landlords that were gracious enough to either let us plant something else or just say, “Hey, you can come back next year and grow.”

Derek Friehe:
But yeah, I’ve heard numbers up to 50% on average some guys getting cut and some guys 100%. Some of those direct guys that go right from the field to the plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
So they cut the acreage for next year. So, this is 2020 crop but you still have 2019 crop in storage. We still have quite a bit from the fall in storage and so that was the other concern, we’ve heard guys that got basically left… I mean, their potatoes got left in storage, saying, “Hey, we don’t want these anymore. Figure out what to do with them.” That had me more concerned because when you don’t plant them, okay, you eat some of the cost but stuff that’s in storage, those are all full-cost potatoes, right? They’re sitting and if they don’t take those, you’re definitely in a world of hurt and our processors told us you’re just going to store them later. By the time we start harvest this fall, we might still have potatoes from last year in there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long can you store potatoes and they’ll still be good?

Derek Friehe:
I think if you have a good storage and a good spud, you can go a year or more.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s amazing.

Derek Friehe:
We don’t typically do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the cool part about potatoes, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. In that way, yeah. We’re lucky. It’s not like the leafy greens, they’re the perishable, highly perishable stuff, mushroom.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, days if not hours sometimes to get things done with those things. If they’re cutting what they’re going to have you plant, say, now. Well, those are potatoes that will be eaten next year, right?

Derek Friehe:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And let’s hope that we aren’t having panic buying ups and downs and restaurants closed and all this disruption at this time next year. I guess how do you know how much less to plant now when in theory you should plant just as much as you have in the past for the next year?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We’re all contracting potatoes. We don’t really do anything on the open market. It’s the processor who we sell our potatoes to that dictates. They are the big companies, and they’re trying to do their best to forecast, “Hey, what it’s going to look like in a year from now? And what are French fries sales going to be?” They are the ones kind of, I mean… In my mind, they’re guessing, as much as we are, what it’s going to be and so I think they were trying to be conservative and they did not want to go along. That’s why there was definitely a drop off in demand. Obviously, restaurants close, not as many potatoes, French fries. I mean, do you cook French fries at home? It’s not many people do that so if you’re not going out, there’s definitely a demand loss there. But yeah, the big question is for next year. Did they screw themselves by shorting planting, and then all of a sudden, demand picks up and they have short product.

Derek Friehe:
That’s kind of my prediction because I feel like there’s a lot of overreactions happening with COVID and people want to return to normal, people want to go out and eat French fries and have a burger. My guess is they’re going to be short, which in some ways is good for us. We’ll see if it reflects in the price, usually it doesn’t, but it’s better than being long, I guess, for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
To answer your question, yes, I do sometimes make French fries at home.

Derek Friehe:
Nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
I found an old-fashioned, I think it was in an antique store, an old-fashioned potato fry cutter. It’s a little plunger thing, kind of those can crusher things, except it plunges the spud through like a waffle-shaped knife and yeah, it’s pretty awesome. I was thinking about that when this COVID thing was happening and I heard about the problems in the potato markets, it dawned on me. It was like, “Yeah, most people don’t make French fries at home, but they should because they’re awesome and it’s kind of a fun thing to do.”

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Of course, I’ve heard of air fryers and people have typically deep fryers in their house, but there’s different ways of doing it. But the fresh market definitely, people definitely stocked up on potatoes, it just wasn’t the French fried kind.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened to all those potatoes, and is happening I guess, that there’s still some left that there wasn’t a market for? What do you do in that situation? I know the Potato Commission was doing some pretty big events, even like at the Tacoma Dome, getting potatoes to people and stuff. There was some outside-the-box thinking going on, I know.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, but it’s still not making that much of a difference. I mean, I’ve heard numbers as much as a billion potatoes that they’re trying to get rid of and I think they’ve gotten rid of a few million, which sounds like… It is a lot, it’s just kind of a drop in the bucket compared to what they really need to get rid of. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I mean, worst case it goes to the cows but the cows could only eat so much potatoes, I suppose.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But then, I don’t know. It’s going to hurt a lot of guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Are there potato operations that will be forced out of business by this whole thing?

Derek Friehe:
I would imagine so. I don’t know. Guys have survived other stuff and hopefully their banks are lenient with them. I don’t know. I mean, we hate to rely on federal bailouts but, I don’t know, some of the federal relief programs haven’t really touched potatoes too much so they kind of need to get that sorted out and then figure out the guys that actually eat it and hopefully they can stay afloat. But yeah, I would imagine it’s going to hurt some guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
The potatoes you, guys, grow, what do they go to? Like French fries, food service kind of stuff, what else? I mean, are they used for [crosstalk 00:25:52]?

Derek Friehe:
I think pretty much all French fries and probably hash browns. So, the plant down the road is who we sell our potatoes to and that’s Simplot, and that’s primarily an export plant. Being in the northwest close to the port, biggest market being Japan and the East Asia, a lot of stuff gets exported that way. McDonald’s-type spec fry is what they’re going for.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean spec fry?

Derek Friehe:
Like the McDonald’s is the gold standard. They have really tight specs for… I mean they want every fry obviously [crosstalk 00:26:26] to look the same, so you need pretty high quality. It has to meet all the quality attributes for them to be able to ship it there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, let’s talk about market disruption and stuff with COVID challenges. It takes me back to your comment about farmers being optimists, and it also makes me think of your background in corporate business. Some of these risks and difficult situations that farmers end up in trying to grow food, would a corporation even make some of those moves that you see farmers saying, “No, we’re going to go forward even though we’ve lost money for a few years, but we think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Derek Friehe:
That’s an interesting question because even corporation… I mean, there’s all sorts of ways to take risk. A lot of corporations, at least I kind of felt that way. I mean, a lot of times you’re not the one, let’s say, taking the risk. You got a good salary, sometimes you might have stock options, but you’re not necessarily the one, at least where I was at, I was kind of working for a big restaurant chain. It was the franchisees. It was the folks that are investing a bunch of money that were the ones risking a lot and potentially making a lot. I mean, the corporate, you’re more of a cog in the machine a little bit, you’re not as… I think, they’re a little more risk averse.

Derek Friehe:
When it comes to farming, I think there’s something about being tied to the land and that rootedness that gives you the ability to weather stuff or there’s a longevity to it that’s worth seeing through as opposed to something like, “Hey, I’m going to build this house or I’m going to spec it out and see if I can take a gamble. Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to give the keys to the bank and move on to the next thing.” I mean, your land, your livelihood and maybe there’s generations, there’s history, there’s memories there, there’s something about that that I think, yeah, maybe it makes you take the long view in investing in it and saying, “I’m going to go through some of those bad years. It’s my land, it’s where I grew up, it’s many cases, my parents or grandparents are buried here, it’s where I want to raise my kids. It’s more…

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it’s not just a job that I want to risk my future. I mean, you have plenty places, people go out and risk and they have to declare bankruptcy and then move on to the next thing, not farmers as much. I don’t know the statistics on that, but that’s my general sense now that I’m out on the farm. You raise your kids here and it’s a way of life. It’s not just a passive investment that I’m just going to invest like stock market. I have skin on the game but it’s nothing to do with my day-to-day reality-

Dillon Honcoop:
Not your whole life.

Derek Friehe:
… family and tradition and [crosstalk 00:29:20] speculation-

Dillon Honcoop:
I often ask farmers because times can often be tough for farmers. It’s not huge margin stuff. It’s hard work. Then the question sometimes is, “Well, why do farmers keep doing it?” You’ll see these farmers take losses sometimes year after year. It’s like, “Why do you keep doing it?” But I think what you’re explaining there kind of gets at some of the answer, that there’s more to the equation than just the dollars.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. In any business, yeah, you have to make money to keep operating and you can only go so long with the equity of your land before it runs out if you’re not doing a good job or if the markets don’t allow you to succeed. But I think farmers, I think they love what they do, I think it’s not just business that I’ve invested in that can be here one day then gone the next. I mean, I think they love it, they’re passionate about it. It’s typically type of family and I think they like being on a tractor. I think they like touching the dirt, and it’s physical, it’s something you can stand on. And there’s something kind of romantic, fulfilling about like seeing something from start to finish like that where you’re kind of stewarding, kind of a co-operator with the land, with nature.

Derek Friehe:
There’s something kind of beautiful about even being dependent on weather and you definitely play a role, but you’re not in control. I mean, you do as much as you can do, but at some point like the others outside external things that dictate your future, but it’s fun. Come harvest time after a year of planning and trying to do everything right, and weather cooperates and you get to kind of see harvest, I mean, kind of standard cliché, like reap what you sow and you can see the fruits of your labor. I mean, it’s a cliché for a reason. There’s something, yeah, kind of romantic and beautiful about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the secret to growing awesome potatoes?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, what’s even just the process in a nutshell for people who don’t know how potatoes are grown? Like you plant them from basically pieces of potatoes.

Derek Friehe:
You plant them from… yeah. So, it’s pretty amazed when you get into the seed piece of it because I mean, that seed is a third generation seed. So it’s like three years ago, they started with a nuclear like kind of stem and then grew tiny seed from that and then another generation of seed from that. It’s a long process even just to get the seed and that’s a big deal, too because there are certain regions, Montana, someplace in Idaho, Canada that grow really good seed that aren’t infected, don’t have a lot of disease, so that’s a really big deal where you get your seed. And yeah, that’s the first big part of it is getting good seed, doing a good job planting. It’s a lot more complicated than just going down the road and getting some wheat seed or corn seed or something like that.

Derek Friehe:
So, you have to do a lot of research, you have to a lot more. I mean, and then you got to cut it. So, I mean, for four or five weeks we have a whole bay that’s like a little mini factory in there and that’s conveyors and belts and cutting equipment and people on the line cutting, taking bad seed out. I mean, it’s a whole process just to get the seed ready to put in the ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they get the actual full sized seed potatoes and then cut them into pieces?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you can get multiple plants out of one potato that way?

Derek Friehe:
Right. Right. Your seed cost would be astronomical if you’re going big seed, so you’re going for about 2.5 ounces average, that’s what we go for anyway. But obviously, potatoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so you’re trying to do your best to cut them down either once or twice to get them in that range.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the key is they need at least a couple of eyes on them because it’s those eyes on the potato.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. You want your eyes on there. If you don’t have eyes, you’re just planting some little piece of potato, that’s not going to do anything. But yeah, about two, two and a half ounces will get plenty of eyes and you’ll be good. So yeah, we plan April and pretty much the whole month and then it’s a long growing season. We’d start harvest September 15 usually and go for a solid month, so it’s one of our actually longer crops. And yeah, it just takes a lot of babies and I think it’s not necessarily a secret, but I think the key is you’re just always checking it. I mean, you just got to babysit.

Derek Friehe:
I have heard it said the most important thing you could put in the field, like the most important input is either your shadow or your boots, or I mean just being there. It’s not a special fertilizer, which you got to get all that stuff right, but you got to be in there. Moisture management’s huge, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you got to irrigate a lot to keep them going?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. It would take a lot of water. I mean, some people say 30 inches of water per year, which is on the higher end versus weed that do 17 inches and be fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s what you have those big circles for?

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
With overhead irrigation.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We only get like eight or nine inches of rain here, so we’re absolutely dependent on canal systems, wells to produce enough water for all that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s what I was going to ask. Where does that water come from here? Like, if you have those sprinklers in a big pivot, one of those big circle irrigators that goes around, where is that water coming from? Is that from a well that’s underneath that irrigator?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, a couple of different sources. So, we got a canal that runs close to our farm, so we’ll pull out of there for some ground and then we got deep wells for some of it, too, so kind of a combination between those two things. It’s all sorts of water.

Dillon Honcoop:
And out here, where does the water in the canal come from? Is that part of the whole system of dams and rivers?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, so Columbia River, just behind Grand Coulee right there. So, they’ll pump it up, and then it will go into banks, Banks Lake, and that’s a massive reservoir, and then it will go through canal systems. And Billy Clapp Lake down into a whole network of both big and small canals. So, we’re close to the East Low, so one of the biggest canals will pump directly out of. That’s a really good source of water. I mean, it’s I think, 600,000 acres irrigated out of that whole system. And I think we’re only using like 3% of the Columbia River. So, it’s amazing how much water’s going through there and proportionally how little we’re actually using of the river to irrigate all that and create economy that’s pretty massive in this area.

Dillon Honcoop:
And a lot of people fed.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
All over the globe, really.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thinking about all the controversy over the dams and stuff and a lot of people think, “Oh, well, we can replace that hydro power,” but those dams are so much more than just hydro power, right? Hydro power isn’t necessarily for some of the dams in our region. The first most important use, right? It’s irrigation, flood control, and lot of those other things. Well, what did those mean to you in being able to farm here?

Derek Friehe:
I mean, that’s everything. I mean, that’s the only reason people are here. This is a desert. I mean, I don’t know how big Moses Lake was before, but it was pretty small and I don’t think people liked living here for that reason. The dust blows and you can’t even do dryland wheat, really. I mean, you’re getting 40-bushel dryland wheat here, just because we don’t get enough rain. So, you completely transform the whole region of the state that produces food, like you said, for the nation, for around the world. And then families, communities, recreation. I mean, sometimes I complain about the west siders that come over here to kind of get out of the city and fish, hunt, because I mean, there’s boat, recreation, all that stuff. So, it provides for a whole state in a lot of ways, so a pretty amazing area.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of a focus do you guys have on environmental issues with your farm?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I think it’s both. It’s in our self-interest. I mean, yeah, stuff gets mandated that we don’t always like, because they don’t make sense and they’re pretty burdensome. But yeah, big picture, I mean, we want to take care of stuff. I mean, even big push on like soil health and raising organic matter and all that. I mean, yeah, we will run to that. I mean, all that stuff helps us grow crops and keeps things around for again, I go back to the generational thing. I mean, farmers typically are kind of family businesses that they want to keep for generations. So you are thinking long term, you’re thinking, “My kids and grandkids, what are they going to be farming?”

Derek Friehe:
It’s not just, “Hey, I’m going to take a short term, mind the soil and abuse things just, so I can get a short term profit gain. I literally am short handing my kids and my grandkids.” So, there’s like a built in, I think, check on that and you’re looking at the short-term like my decision to put more manure down or green manure crops might not pay off by next year, but you do know like, “Hey. This is the science behind it and this is good,” like a long-term investment that that will pay off at some point, again for future generations and all.

Dillon Honcoop:
Green manure, what does that mean?

Derek Friehe:
Like a plant that’s not necessarily a cash crop, so like after I’d take off wheat or something I could plant like a lagoon or something that builds the soil. I’m not necessarily taking nutrients off, but it could fixate nitrogen, it could kind of build the soil and you’re putting it back in and I mean, that’s a real cost. I got by the seed, I got a plant it, I got to fertilize, sometimes I got to water it, all that stuff just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, the opportunity cost of not getting some other crop off of there, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, right, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But that builds the soil, and ultimately, you’re fertilizing your soil in a more natural way.

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep. So, that’s a long-term play. I can’t put that on the spreadsheet and say, “Hey, I know my cost and this is, I got a 5% return on that investment.” Like yeah, no, but it’s still good and I’m thinking long-term.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys are doing some organic stuff?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you get into that? What does that involve? And is that potatoes or is that other things?

Derek Friehe:
We haven’t done potatoes yet. We have another processor down the road that does a lot of fresh or processed sweet corn and peas, and so, we’ve gone the sweet corn. It got us into it and then that’s actually my brother’s expertise and what he’s gotten into, so he’s really taken the bull by the horns on the organic and we’ve the three-year process to transition conventional to organic. And so it’s again a long view of like, “All right. We’re going to invest in this and probably take in the shorts and lose money for those three years while we transition.” But definitely a big learning curve on it’s a different way of farming and it definitely has its value and benefits and hardships. I mean, I tried to plant a circle of peas this year and had to plant twice and second time even failed to, so it’s sort of-

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, it was farm conventionally a long time and I think there was some like Pythium build up and because it’s organic, you can’t put any seed treat on it, so I think it just attacks the seed and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s Pythium?

Derek Friehe:
It’s like bacteria that’s in the soil. I mean, there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Some soil pest.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s attacks the seed.

Derek Friehe:
There’s all like hundreds of them, thousands that are in there that they’re everywhere. It’s just peas are a little more susceptible. Yeah, that’s organic. I mean, down the road, I did exact same variety with a seed treat and it looks awesome. So, just the cost of doing organic sometimes, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
And such is the way of farming, too where you’re going to do one thing and then you try something different and find out, “Oh, there’s this issue,” some issue that you hadn’t dealt with before.

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something new.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. And I mean, as long as you’re learning from it. I mean, you try to sometimes those are expensive mistakes and yeah, you try to imagine what you’re going to do different next year, even though the second time planting, I thought I had fixed that, I think and apparently not, but yeah, that’s what’s great about farming, right? You’re not producing a widget. I mean, it’s everything’s changing. There’s a hundred different variables that go into producing good crop. So, there’s always something different and you’re always puzzling, always trying to figure it out and it keeps you on your toes and sometimes awake at night, but it’s fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what do you all grow? I guess we’ve talked a lot about potatoes.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned sweet corn and you mentioned something else, too.

Derek Friehe:
Wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you talked about peas and wheat.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Bluegrass seed is another big one, so Kentucky Bluegrass seed is another big rotational crop. And then we’ve gotten into organic asparagus is a new growing emerging crop on our farm, which is interesting because it’s like a spring harvest, so while we’re planting everything else, we’re harvesting the asparagus, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
When do you plant the asparagus then?

Derek Friehe:
Well, that’s also-

Dillon Honcoop:
In the fall or in the middle of winter, or what?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, we just actually got done planting another field.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Derek Friehe:
But it’s going to be three years until you’re in production.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really? Wow.

Derek Friehe:
It’s a long, it’s a perennial crop, so it could stand in the ground for 10, 15 years, but yeah, that’s the latest and greatest on our farm. But yeah, like I said, alfalfa, Timothy hay, sometimes we do beans if fits in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about-

Derek Friehe:
Canola seed, a couple of fields of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about the rotation or which dirt given field is or what makes the call on that?

Derek Friehe:
Well, because potatoes the big one, we’re rotating around that, so you got that every four years, so the other three years, you’re figuring out what to grow. And sweet corn works really good in rotation. It’s good before potatoes. It builds up the soil before going to potatoes. And again, some of us markets. We got a processor down the road, so it makes it really easy to deliver to them. Wheat, I don’t always like to do wheat. It’s not that profitable, but it works really well before bluegrass. And the Bluegrass is good from both the soil health standpoint and seed crops. You can sometimes make more money. So, kind of between those solid four and then you can mix it up here and there.

Derek Friehe:
And doing a lot of alfalfa because it transitions really well to organic, so your number one issue in organic is weeds. You’re just constantly dealing with weeds and so alfalfa because you’re cutting it four times a year, you’re constantly picking out weeds. So it’s an easier way to transition and you still have a crop that you’re hopefully breaking even on or making some money on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where does that alfalfa go? I mean, that’s bailed up as hay or is it forage, like forage crop?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. So, it’s also mostly exported, too if it’s high enough quality. So, down the road, we got some friends that run a press and a lot of times we’ll sell our alfalfa to them. They’ll press it, cube it, put it into containers and ship it overseas, so to Asia and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re feeding it to cattle over there?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, dairy cows. I think dairy cow is a big one. Sometimes horses, but cattle. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So much stuff to keep track of. How do you track at all?

Derek Friehe:
I don’t. I can’t. Yeah. No, we got it we got a good team. We got a lot of guys that keep track of different things. And so, that’s probably, yeah. No one person can keep track of it all, that’s for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you came in coming from the business world and got involved in some of the business stuff here, did you make some changes, kind of say, “Hey, here’s some new ways of going about things,” or how do you manage that kind of stuff?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I mean, not… I see little things that I could have done. Like I took over it stuff, I was like, “We need an IT company. We need better internet.” I mean, people are always complaining about the internet. So, I don’t know. I just found little things that people had issues with that weren’t up to my standards, I guess. We need good internet here. That’s important.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does a farm need internet for?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, my gosh. Well, that’s a good-

Dillon Honcoop:
I could probably answer that question, but you can probably answer it better than me.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, well, especially well, our accounting. We have a really good accounting team and they’re pretty connected with all that stuff. But I mean, you’re a big thing, well, this relates to another issue I saw like utilizing technology was like on pivot, like pivot control, having stuff on your like telemetry, having it on your phone. It’s expensive to get it on your phone. We use field net, so that’s a thematic product and that’s all the circles that we have mostly. But basically getting the panel, the circle panel on your phone and being able to control it from there was like huge. And I definitely made a push to get that done and we tested on a few fields and I was like, “This is a no brainer.” like this is-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what can you control them from your phone, like you could actually irrigator?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. You can start it, you can stop it, you can set programs, you can set when it stops, you can view it from anywhere to figure out where it’s at. If it breaks down, you get a text. I mean, it’s just real time. And having to drive in every single time, wear and tear and pickups. It’s pretty amazing like how much. I mean, sometimes I’m lying in bed, like checking it and I can set a call stop and start, so that it stops at a certain time and that saved me a whole trip out there, like it’s definitely paid for itself. And it’s just one of those technology pieces that is pretty amazing that 15 years ago didn’t have that huge productivity efficiency gains.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that save water? Like being able to make sure that you don’t have issues there and you have your timing right for irrigation?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I suppose it can save. Yeah, yeah. It can save. I mean, you could just be more precise, you can plan a little better, you can make sure it’s off when it needs to be or check it quicker and make sure either it’s on or off, but more so just for the crop itself. If something happens, you can respond a lot quicker if it’s on and not moving and watering in one place. I mean, just from a crop man, I mean, I think you can do a better job irrigating, get better crops from it, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus if it breaks down in the middle of the night and just sits there pouring water into one spot and you have a big mud hole and you wasted a bunch of water and you have a big mess on your hands.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah or if it really needs water, and it shuts off in the middle of the night, and maybe I wasn’t getting to that field until midmorning, but I can first thing right there, turn it up. It’s going to get hot and needs it, and so yeah, your response. So, ideally, you should be able to get better crops.

Dillon Honcoop:
It makes it hard to get away from work, though.

Derek Friehe:
In some ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess, you’d have to wake up in the middle of the night and adjust your irrigation if you wanted to fumble out in bed.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. No, in some ways… Yeah, but yeah. No, but in some ways, it makes it easier like I can take off for weekend and still monitor stuff I need to or make some changes and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Spend actually a little bit of time with your family.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
But keep an eye on the irrigation.

Derek Friehe:
Exactly. Well, I love it. I can’t go back, even though it costs a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But, it’s pretty sweet.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing on the farm since you’ve been back? And farming has its challenges, what’s been the most challenging time for you so far?

Derek Friehe:
It’s just the learning curve is steep. I mean, it’s one of those things I want to figure out. I want to solve it a lot quicker than just the seasonality of farming allows for. I encounter problem with planting like, I don’t come around to that specific thing for another year and so it takes me five years to get just those five events to happen as opposed to if it was replicating itself more often. I could really feel like getting up to speed quicker and just the long process and just long enough for years, so that you forget and having to relearn it, and it’s just… I mean, that’s why these good farmers, I mean, they’ve been doing it 50, 60 years. They’d just seen everything and there’s no book that can teach that to you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though, them, I mean, 50 years, that’s only 50 chances.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you got to make each one of those count.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s a lifetime.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. That’s not very many. I mean, it is and it isn’t. I mean, it’s yeah. You really got to be on top of it and try to ideally take notes or I don’t know. I mean, it’s just, yeah, a lot of it’s by gut for a lot of these guys just because they’ve done it so many times, but it’s taken so many years to get to that point. So, that’s been the toughest thing. I wish I could learn way faster and it’s just sometimes slow.

Dillon Honcoop:
You set some kind of record or something with wheat growing, right?

Derek Friehe:
You saw that, did you?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, what was the story there? As a potato grower, well, obviously you guys grow wheat on your rotation, but it sounds like you’ve really honed in on some cool stuff that you’re doing with growing wheat.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. So I became the wheat guy a couple of years ago and I take this on and managed it. And so, I did and I looking around and I saw that that competition, a lot of the winners were coming out of this area and it’s like, “Man, are we missing something?” They’re literally miles away and they’re getting yields like that, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the competition? Like what’s-

Derek Friehe:
It’s just a national wheat yield competition. I mean, it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s like to see who can get the most off of an acre or how?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it’s small plots so it’s like three-acre test plot that you got to set it aside, harvest it, weigh it, have it certified by a third party and if it’s a tie enough, you can win the competition. So, it’s not like a full field but it’s still kind of a small sample size. And anyway, I saw that. I saw some of the ground mist, who were involved in that and just reached out to him like, “Hey, we got to grow wheat. Can you help us out?” And so, I brought him in. Yeah and like first year, we took part in it. We got a combination of picking the right spot, good year, good field. And yeah, won it with 180 bushels to the acre, so not that the whole field did that but that three-acre plot that did it. Yeah, it’s cool. Won a trip to San Antonio and yeah, kind of fun for the farm, I think for the guys to see that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, this is what the highest wheat yields in the country?

Derek Friehe:
The nation, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
For certain class oats irrigated spring wheats, so as opposed to either dryland spring wheat or winter wheat or irrigated winter wheat and all that, so in that class, it got the highest. But yeah, it was kind of amazing, because we’re only potato growers, so I think it was surprising for the guys, it’s like, “Oh, okay.” Because we do other crops pretty well too, but it’s kind of fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Something like that though, does that change the way the things that you discover when you’re doing that. Does that change the way you farm the rustier wheat from little the test plot or?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We’ve definitely made some changes. I mean, it’s a small sample one year. I mean, you take that with a grain of salt, like you need to replicate that for a few years, different fields, see if we can get the same results. But yeah, yeah, I made some changes to the program. And again, I think our farm is more like, “Hey, we’re not going to spend a ton of money on wheat.” It’s low cost. Let’s just plant it because we have to, and it’s a good rotation, but not spending a ton of energy, time on it.

Derek Friehe:
So yeah, I kind of took it over, and I’m still learning a lot and that was part of it, too, is bringing in somebody that can teach and compare notes with and see what they’re doing. So yeah, it’s helpful and yeah, icing on the cake to witness something like that, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What did the long-time wheat farmers in the neighborhood say to you about that really? What are you doing, you young buck?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got lucky.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, I know. Sometimes, I think it was lucky, but no, it’s a good area. I mean, like I said this area, I think some of the neighbors have worn it before and they’re at the right latitude. We got the right temperatures. I mean, it’s got good water, soil. It all adds up. I mean, I listened to a deal yesterday, I think UK and New Zealand are the highest grossing wheat yields in the world and a guy in New Zealand got like 250 bushels or something. So anyway, that puts in perspective, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s pretty amazing to be able to get those yields.

Dillon Honcoop:
So now, are you gunning for 250 bushels.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you could do that?

Derek Friehe:
No. Not right away. We’ll get there.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:54:49], isn’t it?

Derek Friehe:
If I can get it to 200, I’d be happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the U.S., probably not.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thanks for sharing your story. There’s a lot of cool stuff you guys have going on here and I could sense it right away when I drove onto the farm, just signage and the people here, and it was a really positive vibe.

Derek Friehe:
Oh, good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, I could tell it you guys really care about what you’re doing here.

Derek Friehe:
Good. Yeah. No. It’s a hopefully a good play. I mean, you don’t know what employees are saying behind locked doors, but you hope you create a culture that they look forward to coming to work to and feel taken care of, and feel part of the family.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I appreciate you being willing to open up and share the personal side of all of it, too.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Derek is so relaxed, and it’s just… I mean, obviously, he’s faced challenges and done a lot of different stuff, a lot of hard work, but you can tell he’s just the person that can take it as it comes and keeps a positive attitude and it really was cool visiting the farm there because they’re a big operation but it doesn’t feel like that. Everyone’s communicating and talking. It’s a really positive atmosphere and I really enjoyed my visit there at Friehe Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you enjoyed this conversation with Derek, make sure to check out our YouTube channel. I’m just starting to get it up and going, so I’ll be adding more stuff as I go here, and hopefully I’ll even be able to add some of the conversation that went on even beyond what we have here on the podcast, some extra conversation that we had. I want to say before it was over, but it’s only over when it’s over and I get my car and drive away. The conversation just continues, so I’ve got more of that to share on our YouTube channel. Just Real Food, Real People on YouTube, just search it up. It should be easy to find.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for your support. Thank you for subscribing Google podcasts, on Spotify, on Apple podcasts, you name it. Also, following our social media channels Real Food, Real People on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram, and checking out our website realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop, grew up on a family farm and I just want to share the stories of family farmers and all the other people behind our food, in the restaurant world, in the research world, we’ve had here people who distribute food. All kinds of stuff that is part of bringing food grown here to our tables.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Schultz part 2 | #027 06/15/2020

When you have wine from Washington, know that there's a lot of science and a lot of work that goes into it. Viticulturist Andrew Schultz explains in detail the secrets to growing great wine grapes, and how he's always challenging the status quo.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
There’s no such thing as retirement. I washed that off a long time ago. I’m just going to get up and I’m going to try and do the thing that I enjoy most every day. This seems to be something that really challenges me, so I’ve stuck to it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
What gets you up in the morning? I know for me, one of the things is my continuing mission here with the podcast to meet farmers, talk with farmers all over the state, and share their personal stories of how they got to do what they do, all the humanity that they put into the food that we then eat. For Andrew Schultz, our guest again this week, what gets him up every morning is the challenge of growing amazing wine grapes, and in often cases, growing them in a way that maybe no one has ever tried before. He’s always pushing the envelope, doing something different. He gets pretty technical in this part two this week.
Honestly, I’m not sure if he may have shared some trade secrets in the conversation really in how he does what he does, but he’s really open on what he does. He’s not trying to hide anything at all. So, he shares a lot about the technical aspect of growing wine grapes, but don’t be intimidated by all the technical details. Maybe people more familiar with some of that stuff will really get into that, but just listen to all the… I mean if you hear anything from all this technical stuff, how he handles irrigation and managing the crop and the soil and all of that, if you take anything from that, it’s just understanding the challenge that someone growing food is up against, even a non-staple like wine, how much goes in to that between the science and the art and people and everything.
Really, really eye-opening to me as a farm kid to hear all the particulars. So, I really enjoyed this conversation myself. I hope that you do too from whatever background you’re coming from, just to appreciate what goes into growing the incredible wine grapes produced here in Washington.
Of course, as Andrew said, I think last week and says again this week too, so much of what you taste in that wine that you buy in the store is a result of how the grapes were grown, the soil that they were in, the weather. So, many things are determined by a grower like Andrew and his team at Brothers In Farms. They’re out in Benton City, by the way. If you didn’t catch last week, that’s part one. You may want to do that for some background, even though I’m sure you can appreciate some of the things he ends up talking about here in part two.
My name is Dillon Honcoop, I should mention that, host here of Real Food Real People Podcast. I grew up on a raspberry farm here in Western Washington. Like I said earlier, I’m just going on a personal mission to go all over Washington state and share the real stories of the real farmers who are producing our food. I really do hope you do, and I think you will enjoy this conversation this week.
What’s your future? What’s your vision for Brothers In Farms and what you guys are doing with custom viticulture? That has to be closely tied then with the future of these wine markets and this region and all of this stuff comes together, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. What I forgot to mention, which I was going to mention earlier, is even in this marketplace, for example, work with one property. They sell their grapes for about twice what anybody else sells them for. Even in this “tight or bulked out marketplace,” those grapes are sold out. So, what I see on the higher end growing side of the people that are more discerning is yeah, absolutely they want to value and there’s ways that they can get there. They have a product line to build, but for some of these real particular things, they’re still being particular on where they buy them from and who’s growing them and what the values are behind growing those.
So, they are still purchasing up, so they’re buying that farmer’s consistency to be able to produce this thing for their customers every year. The price, it obviously matters at some level, but it doesn’t matter as much. So, that’s the same for [inaudible 00:04:52]. This is kind of our niche. We’re willing to do things that other companies aren’t, or maybe they’re so big that they aren’t, or they can’t. So, it’s like the battleship maneuvering in a bathtub type theory. So, where we can turn a corner fast and they may not be able to turn a corner fast or maybe they’re not willing to take a certain type of a measurement to be able to manage a field, that’s how we’re hammering down into our niche, is being willing to do the things or listen to the customer.
I mean, the whole reason I started this business was because a company came in and they bought out a family vineyard. They were like 75 years old, they were ready to sell. So, they sold, they got their uptick on their property. I think they bought it at $250 or $2,500 an acre or something. They sold it for… Would have been 200 or 300 X that value in the end. The person that’s going to buy that to a company. But that company, when they came in, they wanted a farm in certain way. The people that existed in Washington that were farming those properties, they said, “We aren’t willing to do those things.”
Anywhere somebody says, “We aren’t willing to do it,” is an opportunity for somebody to start a business and go do something, and that’s essentially all we did. We said, “Hey, what do you want done? We’ll listen to you. We can build a company to service your needs.” So that’s essentially what we’re looking for, is people like that.
We’ve been successful at finding those people. So, as the future grows, there’s going to be more people asking more discerning questions. We want to put ourselves in the position to be able to answer those questions for those companies or those individuals that need those questions answered.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are kind of new kids on the block to this world. Even though the Washington wine world is younger than California and other places, there’s still some people who’ve been around here for a while. What’s the reaction been to you guys coming in, doing things different?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, to be honest, I don’t pay attention to a lot of stuff, whether it’s pundits on the sideline or whatever it is. We just try to keep our head down and do the right thing every day. I mean, you hear things and probably some of the comments, not that they were direct comments towards me or whatever. I’ve had conversations with guys that have been growing in the state for a long time. One of the comments I had was, “We don’t even really know what to do with this data, necessarily when people take these things and so, what are we going to do with it? It’s a waste of time.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re collecting all of these. You’ve got spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of info that you’ve gathered, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. Essentially, my point was let’s say that none of it’s worth anything, right? We can’t do anything with it. Let’s just say for a second, which we think we can, but let’s say we can’t. If we have those points in the future, we’re going to be able to go back and learn something from what we’ve done in the past, because we’ve taken the data points. I guess to go back, part of our program or why we do what we do or how we got to how we do what we do is I have developed an irrigation model essentially over the last 10 years. The company that came in that we started our business under mainly, that company, that guy had been working on same issues for about 35 years. Him and I saw eye to eye on one of the major factors.
When you look at a great plant in the world and this is the way I looked in, it took me a couple of years to answer this question. What’s the most important factor when you start looking at chaos theory, which is what farming is like. What’s the most important factor? What’s the thing that I can change at the fulcrum to change the whole picture at the end of it? So, I started dialing down. I said, “Okay, what are the three main things in a grapes’ life? It’s sunlight, it’s nitrogen, and it’s water. Sunlight comes in two forms, that which we can’t control, how much heat or how much sun hits the property in an individual a year or timing wise.
And then there’s the amount of sunlight that’s inside the canopy. In Washington state, what I look at is control or any time in a system is what I look is how much control you have is you look at the extremes. So, we don’t irrigate it at all. The plant die, or it’s significantly reduced in size, and the canopy’s 5, 10 inches tall. On the other side of it, we irrigate it all we want and the thing’s 60, 80 inches long. It’s blocked out all the sunlight and the grapes are never going to ripen. The answer’s somewhere in between. So, we can manage that and that’s managed largely with water. And then you go to nitrogen, nitrogen stops in the soil with the absence of water.
So, anything subservient to something else is not as important as the master, which means that water is the number one key. So, then the question becomes how can we manage water and what do we do with water? So, then we get into vine spacing mainly in row, not necessarily from one row to the next, but in row. And then timing and what the soil actually does. What I found on the soil, at least in my opinion, is it’s less about this real sexy version that they give you in the media about all this minerality comes through and all these other things.
Really what has the biggest effect is the physical properties of that soil. How fast does the water go in? How fast doe the water come out? Is the soil compact enough or have enough clay or silt to actually limit the row growth? What happens when you have gravel in it? That structure’s changed. I mean, those are the things that make the biggest impact. So, we kind of hammered down on that. When we started working with the company from California, they came in. They gave us some data sheets on some other things to measure to understand.
So, we started doing that. I built a program for them, which they hadn’t done, or we hadn’t done for measuring the breathing of the plant. That was important, but the models that existed out there in the world before us were all models that were created from these areas that have 40 inches of rain a year. Their model basically said that in the beginning of the year, you start out with all this water in the soil and there may be some more that comes. At some point, you cannot irrigate it enough that you reach some stress threshold that’s key. And then you go back to irrigation, and that’s what quality is. Yet, in Washington, like we could reach that point by the time the grapes go into bloom. So, now what do you do, right? So, we took some-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s stress point of lack of water.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which does what to the plant? You want that to do what?

Andrew Schultz:
Just like a human. You know what I mean? Or any other biological processes, you take something, and you put it underneath stress. And then what happens? In the plant’s version, skins thicken. They create more color to withstand more sunlight, which these are all polyphenolics and things like that. That build up in the plant and that berry size is smaller, because basically the plant just wants to reproduce. So, you’re using it against its rules. Once you reach certain biological points, the plant can’t walk back through that in an individual season. So, once that plant tip shuts down on those shoots, you can’t get them to start again.
Once it’s completely shut down and they’ll shoot, side shoots if you go back to full irrigation at the wrong time or something like that, but the tip won’t regrow. So, we’re kind of using the plant against itself and there’s ways that we’ve measured. So, we had to go back, and we had to take these parameter readings. We had to move them down. We would say, “Okay, well we have this different system. What’s the most efficient way to use that system? And then are the stress levels that they said, are they real? Are the numbers the same?” So, we started looking at research correlation and all that stuff to what that is. To go back to your point on what happens is, it’s like a human and this is the way we look at irrigation. It’s really frequency and timing when you think about it.
So, if you decide to go to the gym like once every two weeks and workout super freaking hard, right? After about six weeks or a year or something like that, you probably won’t have created much of a biological reaction with yourself, at least not as much as if you decided to go to the gym and workout moderately five days a week. You’re going to see a lot more, especially after about 21 days. Plant’s the same way.
So that’s what we do, is we’ve kind of figured out a really nice stress threshold. We hold that plant there for about 21 days, and then we’re able to start building the water back up in the soil. Once that plant walks through that door, it can’t walk back through. We go back to full irrigation. Many times, this puts us in a really good spot in Washington state where we’ve built back the water up in the soil at least on that top 12 inches to where as soon as the heat comes, the plants can withstand it. They don’t have any issues with sour, shrivel, or overstress or something like that when the stress hits the plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yup. Is anybody else doing this this way?

Andrew Schultz:
Not in particular. We chose that particular measurement. There’s other ones that are on the cusp, some of these micro-tensiometers and things like that, that can be measured on a 15-minute basis that are the future. That technology is not quite there. We’re also looking at stuff to be able integrate these into a basically like A&M, like these neural networks that can self-learn for a specific location and stuff like that. Because if we can do that, we’re completely automated. But we chose these measurements specifically, because they see past certain things.
A lot of guys will read the measurement of how much water is in the soil, but that doesn’t mean anything. If you have flocks run the soil, which is a real issue in Washington, say starting last year, but the reality is it was here before that. Those attack the roots, and of course that keeps the plant from uptaking enough water.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that bacteria?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s a root louse basically. So, it’s a fly that lives on the… They pupate and all that, live on those roots. We haven’t found the flying version yet. They’re still moving in Washington state vineyards, nonetheless. It’s wiped out the California industry, I think once or twice, and then it’s wiped out France twice in two different times anyway. We’re largely owned rooted here, so we don’t have any rootstocks or anything, which is a real benefit to Washington to a certain extent, but really less is known about that.
There’s nematodes that mute the tips of all the small roots that are out there, and then that affects the water uptake of the plant. They mute the tips and they leased the roots. So, that basically stresses them out and you don’t get as big a root network. So, it doesn’t have the ability to pull out as much water over time. Especially when only start forming groundless, nematodes come up a population. So, there’s issues like that.
There’s cold damage issues and everything. If you read what’s in the soil, it doesn’t necessarily mean what the plant’s actually seeing. So, that’s why we measure the breathing of the plant, because that tells us exactly what that plant is seeing. This is independent of once you started getting into the rootstock conversation, these rootstocks that are going to be going in it and real heavy numbers in Washington state. Each one of those rootstocks deals with water differently. So, that’s going to affect the root mass below and how that plant’s breathing on the top of it. So, those are the things, so that’s why we want to measure what that plant’s actually seeing, and then we backed that up.
The best way to look at it is none of these things… I think some of the colleagues out there, at least the people I’ve talked to, have pointed to some of the measurements that we take and they’re like, “Oh that’s not a cornerstone. That’s not the magic pill.” In reality, none of this stuff is a magic pill and it’s not why we’re doing it. The reality is, is how you figure out where you’re at in black spaces. You take as many data points as possible, and then you can try to triangulate your most probable location and make a decision from there. That’s essentially what we’re doing. We have about four or five measurements that we take during the year to understand what the long-term health of the plant is to keep it doing the same thing that we want it to do.
There’s some indications there with our protocol that we put in place. So, we’ve had to compensate for our compensation. Anyways, so it’s really fun to be able to do it and it’s challenging to see. What’s really cool is when you’re able to come back and reproduce these every year and on different varieties and on different properties, and we’ve done it on about nine different soil types. We played in the rocks last year, which is a really high-end wine region, a common, interesting wine region of Washington. We played in that last year. I found out that soil is actually just as if not more predictable than some of the other soils in Washington. Predominantly everybody thinks that it’s a super wet soil.
To be honest, we did a really good job about getting the water out of there last year and faster than we did on the Ellensburg silt loam, which is their stuff that they consider as really high end down there. Warden’s nice. Some of these different soil types have these different periods of time where things pop up and some of these nematodes too even by variety. Typically speaking, there are some really over-vigorous Merlot blocks out there, and there’s some really under-vigorous Merlot blocks.
What we’ve found on some of these under-vigorous Merlot blocks is the nematodes for whatever reason tend to like them versus other varieties over time. How that ends up coming to fruition is some time in the back end or middle of May, when you wouldn’t even think about doing an irrigation, because you think that there’s water in the soil, those plants pop hot for having a lot of stress. Then you go back in and you do one really small four-hour irrigation, plant goes back to normal and you get everything you want. It’s really cool to see in action.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. Still this stuff about water is boggling my mind, because everything else seems to be focused on making sure you have enough water and always bringing in enough. Your management isn’t just that. In fact, quite often, it’s about making sure you don’t have too much, which is not what I’m used to at all, but it makes sense when you explain the science of what’s actually going on in the plant there.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. In our case, based on numbers I’ve seen or whatever, we’re probably 20 to 25%. In a lot of cases, less water than say a standard farmer that’s trying to grow decent grapes. So, some guys will say 12 to 15 inches a year or something like that. I mean, I’ve grown some crops on as little as 8 or 9 inches in a year and had excellent results with those grapes too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s an environmental impact even there possibly as well.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, but you know what? I mean, absolutely it’s got an environmental, but from an economic impact standpoint too, it’s fantastic. If we can avoid creating problems that we don’t have to go in there and find solutions for with either chemicals or extra inputs, we’re absolutely going to do that. I mean, every time, hands down. One of the things I like to point to is a property that I ran for about five years. I was tracking all the different forms of labor on that property. Actually, all the properties that we’re running for that guy, but I would break them down at the end of every year. Because otherwise, when you look at labor, it’s just this like big $600,000 pile of money.
But when you start breaking it down to whether it was done with hand work or tractor work or what type of hand work or this part of the season or the other part of the season, we start breaking down those numbers and you look at them over a five-year period. We went in and this is when I was developing that protocol. What we ended up doing in that business was we actually dropped $50,000 of labor off of a 100-acre property.
What’s important about that is that’s $50,000 that we saved, but when I look at labor and this comes from an employee standpoint, you don’t necessarily want to reduce your labor because people’s lives and families and all that stuff are affected. So, what we did in that particular case was we still had some acres to develop. So, we took that same crew and they would have been working on one property to do these certain things. We built another 35 acres over a two-year period on this other property that allowed us to put the time into building this other or extra or additional revenue stream for the business. And then once that came to fruition, we were farming 175 acres of grapes with the exact same number of people. We were farming 110 or 115 to begin with.
This is one of the things I like looking at is how many men per acre does it take the farm it? The year I left, we were farming 1 man for every 15 acres, and 1 to 10 is considered pretty, pretty efficient in hand done farming. So, this is the kind of power that we have with water or some of our inputs. I think it’s an important thing in life in general, like whether it’s farming or anything else. When you look at it and you say, “Okay, Hey everybody’s ready for the new magic bullet or the thing out there that’s going to get us to whatever level or something,” the reality is, is what we should be doing is saying “What can I do better with what I have right now? How can I make me more efficient or a better person or whatever it is?”, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
That applies to so many things.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell the consumer out there that’s kind of skeptical? What’s really going on our farms here in the state?

Andrew Schultz:
In general, in Washington state because of our dry conditions where the majority of the stuff has grown at least on this side. I don’t know much about the farming on the West side, so I’d leave that to you. But on this side, I mean, man, because of the lack of water and the no rain and stuff like that and having good growing soils, I mean by and large, we are really efficient. We’re way more sustainable than a lot of growing regions. I think that’s a huge benefit to Washington across the board.
I mean, as a case in point, some of these other regions, they’re spraying 8 to 12 times in a season. The average farmer over here, even for the production stuff, is at 6. We’ve been getting away for the last five years. I’ve sprayed 3 times per season and 2 of those aren’t even chemicals. They were like sulfur in the beginning of the year and then some oil in the mid part. And then at one point, chemical that attacks only mildew. And then after that, we don’t do anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
You do any organic?

Andrew Schultz:
I don’t do organic. Although I had a client that talked to me within the last two months. They’re really interested in trying to produce about 100-acre organic grape vineyard. I look at as like, it’s a challenge for me. But I think with good irrigation practices and pruning practices and stuff like that, I think we could get some organic grapes, and really not have to spray them at all or very, very little if we even did. Because I think that that could happen here in Washington and there’s definitely some guys that have been doing it in the state.
I’d like to do it on a high end level and see what happens with that, because I think it’d be a really fun project to see how efficient we can get and how much we can actually reduce as far as inputs are concerned. So, yeah. So, maybe here in the future, we’ll be working with somebody on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the food consumer trust the food that they’re getting from this state?

Andrew Schultz:
Can they trust the food they get from the state? I mean, I think so. I don’t know what’s done in other places. Because I dealt with tree fruit and stuff like that too, when I was farming in the Yakima area. The US in general, we’re being held to these Global GAP standards and they are a pain in the rear end to deal with. You know what I mean? I got audited every year I mean, there’s some stuff that’s even on a ridiculous level. You know what I mean? For example, we had to test all the water sources as far as irrigation water, even for E. coli bacteria and stuff.
For the lay consumer that may not be privy to the research behind that is they looked at… I mean, we’re talking astronomical levels of E. coli in water, like somewhere around 1,200 colony forming units and stuff like that. They were putting it straight on and seeing if it actually went into the apple. What they found is even at these astronomical rates that don’t even exist in an open ditch in the state, they would literally have to put it on like that day. It was more coming in through water, actually sitting on the apple than it was inside of the fruit.
As a case in point, Washington state farmers or farmers in general, at least to my knowledge, we don’t irrigate at least a couple of days before we go pick, because you don’t want the ground to be soft when you’re in there trying to carry around, bends and stuff like that. So, there’s no water even going on these things. In many cases, it’s during the fall where you’ve cut back the irrigation and maybe like once a week anyway. But I mean, we were being held to these standards.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think there’s all the concern about that?

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest part of the concern is these other countries that are producing fruit and produce in the world. Apples aren’t one of them, but there’s definitely some vegetables out there that are really prone to have issues like E. coli. One of those is lettuce. Of course, it’s low growing and then there’s ton of irrigation. There’s water that’s held in between those leaves and stuff like that. I don’t know whether it actually goes inside the lettuce, because I’m not in that industry necessarily.
The standards that these other countries are held to isn’t as strict as what the US is, but you know what I mean. We’re required to have bathrooms for so many people and cleaned on a regular basis and stuff like that. I mean, that stuff that is standard and has been before a Global GAP even existed. So, largely our produce is done right at least from that standpoint or from a health standpoint. It’s when some of those logistics are dropped or whatever that you largely start having issues. By and large, I mean, there’s large farmers in Washington, but nowhere near what there is in other places.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are workers being taken care of well? I know that’s a concern as well. Are people being compensated fairly and treated humanely as they’re doing hard work in the field?

Andrew Schultz:
I was just back in Iowa at a meeting not too long ago. This is a land expo meeting. So, they had a lot of bigwigs there and people that farm thousands of acres over there for soybeans and corn and all that stuff. I happened to stop by a bar when I got there that night. I just wanted a pint after flying over there, so I sat down at this Irish pub. I was having a pint and I chatted with a bartender for a minute. I said, “Hey, man, what’s the minimum wage over here?” They were like, “It was $7.25,” which is a federal rate. I was like, “Are you crapping me?” He said, “No.” I said, “You got to be joking me. Our minimum wage here this year is $13.50.” That’s one of the highest in the States.
Arguably, you’d say cost of living is probably a little bit increased too, but yeah, by and large Washington’s doing a really good job of keeping pace and making sure that people will be in compensated correctly or at least as correctly as possible. You see that in the guys here in Washington. I feel like a lot of the farmers are being treated fairly.
As we transitioned into more mechanical stuff and what that does is that deletes jobs, but those guys don’t go away. They still have a lot of experience. They learn how to work on those pieces of equipment. They learn how to operate them. They’re out there just doing more acres but getting paid a little bit better and doing a little bit of work that’s probably less hard than from the standpoint of that stuff.
Like when I was a kid and not that I spent a lot of time in, but my dad, he’s telling me stories about how they used to pick watermelons. You go out there and you stand in a line. One guy toss 20-pound watermelon to the next guy. The next guy toss to him and next guy to him, and it went all the way into the back of a truck. Some guy would be catching up there and stacking them. So, the backbreaking work isn’t backbreaking anymore, at least in large part so.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about environmental sustainability? Are we doing what we can here in Washington?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. As far as I’m concerned, yeah, absolutely. Actually, the chemicals and things that are out there are really good. We’ve seen a lot of stuff that we’ve done, even though we’ve reduced normal pesticides or chemicals or something like that just by our irrigation practices. Yeah. So, the one thing that we see for what we do is we’ve reduced that, but these chemicals are more pointed. When they go out there, they’re just out there attacking the mildew. They’re not attacking the bees and stuff like that, which is fantastic. This is what I would do if I played this game with organic grapes, is I’d looking at some other options out there other than sulfur, because sulfur even though it’s allowed for organic, a new chem nowadays would just go after the mildew in one way or another, one of its modes of action.
Sulfur goes out there and it’s broad spectrum. It wipes out anything or can affect the fecundity of these other bugs. You might end up with another issue in the vineyard, plus they only last seven days. So, the diesel footprint, because a lot of the tractors run on diesel. The diesel footprint is like three times higher. So, it’s a real question. If I was playing the organic game with organic viticulture, that’s the kind of stuff that I would try to do, is reduce the economical of the diesel footprint and actually try to get the plant to do everything we want it to do, essentially with this low input as possible.
So, typically in these vineyards, we’ve seen really excellent… As a case in point, in last several years, a lot of guys will have to spray for… Which any time, you spray pesticide, they’re bad, because it kills bugs in general, even if you have them that are fairly pointed. Mites is a big issue for dust and stuff like that especially out here in the desert, the dry side of things. But what we’ve seen is by staying as low input as possible, doing a lot of this farming up front in a year, what you end up getting is this really nice abundance of other bugs in the vineyard. So, we’ve seen in many cases, the vineyards I’ve run for last 10 years that those populations will come up in the fall.
I have a fantastic guy that does all my chemical recommendations and everything. He comes out and he’s looking at the beneficial populations. He’s looking at the populations of the bugs that we don’t want, right? As he sees those come up, he’s like, “Hey, don’t do anything right now. Let’s wait another week. I’m going to watch the populations, the beneficials.” In many cases, those beneficials come in as soon as the bad ones come up. They’re eating and taking care of the other guys, and then guess what? Nature balances itself, and it works out in the end.
So, that’s the kind of stuff that we’re trying to wait for to use, to see if it happens naturally. Because if we went in there one time and we sprayed those, now we’ve just upset what population of the beneficials they were before they ramped up to take care of the bad guys and we just wiped out everything that we want. And then we would have to do remedial action and the year after, and the year after, and the year after. And then you ended up in this downhill spiral that you don’t want to be in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the one thing that person who isn’t on farms at all, doesn’t know anything about farming, but buys and eats food, what should they know about well, I guess with you guys in particular? The wine that they’re drinking from Washington state and any food and farming, what should they know?

Andrew Schultz:
Probably one of the biggest things from a standpoint of why or how we farm is there’s nobody out there. You know what I mean? I can’t speak for the big companies that sell everything to the people, but the individual farmers that are out there, like we’re trying to make a living and we’re trying to do the right thing. We’re not going to do something that is going to screw up our one plot of land that we have, because that’s what we live on. That’s our livelihoods. So, we’re going to try and make the best decisions we can every day. There’s no reason for us to go out there and do more than we have to or not pay attention enough. So, that’s probably the biggest thing. We’re real people out here and we’re trying to make the best decisions possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up and just sharing so much about what you do. It’s so obvious that you have a ton of passion for this. Are you going to keep doing this forever?

Andrew Schultz:
I don’t know, man. Yeah, I think so. You know what I mean? Life changes and life does stuff. I try to stay open minded with that, but yeah, absolutely. As far as am I going to stop doing anything? No, I’ll always be doing something until the day I die. There’s no such thing as retirement. I washed that off a long time ago. I’m just going to get up and I’m going to try and do the thing that I enjoy most every day. This seems to be something that really challenges me, so I’ve stuck to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thanks for sharing some of that with us.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, there’s a good chance that if you have some Washington wine, especially some of the really fancy stuff, you may have had wine from grapes grown by Andrew Schultz and his team at Brothers In Farms. I should have mentioned earlier, I recorded this conversation with Andrew before COVID stuff got crazy. So, I bet some of those answers would be a little bit different as far as just the things that they’re dealing with right now to keep workers and people safe. So, it’s not like they’re ignoring that. I just wanted to mention so that some of that stuff makes sense. Maybe we should even follow up with Andrew. I’d be curious to hear how things are going, because it certainly has presented additional challenges.
Also, I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but if you do want to catch it, we earlier talked with one of Andrew’s team Javier Valencia. Should look up, see what my Googling skills are to quickly check what episode number that was. I should have checked. Oh, episode 11. Episode 11 was Javier. So, if you want to hear more about Brothers In Farms and from another team member there, check that one out. That’s at realfoodrealpeople.org, of course. What a cool guy. I don’t know if I said it on the podcast yet, but I said it on social media. Previously that after I got done talking with Andrew, I felt like can I get a job here? I’d like to work for you. You just seem like a really smart guy, really organized, and really cutting edge and just willing to try new stuff, not just doing it the same old way.
That gets me pumped up about doing something, whatever it is. I don’t have any particular passion for growing wine grapes. I grew up on a red raspberry farm, so I guess it’s not that much different. I think the whole red raspberry thing is pretty cool. So, yeah, I don’t know.
I’d be interested to hear what your reaction is and certainly feel free to anytime send me a message, a direct message or post something in the comments on any of our social media posts on Instagram. It’s @rfrp_podcast, RFRP, Real Food Real People, @rfrp_podcast on Twitter as well. And then Real Food Real People Podcast on Facebook, or I think technically it’s RFRP.podcast if you want to use the specific handle. Also, you can email me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Yeah, I think it would be really cool to hear what you think. Maybe if you’ve got questions for people too.
I’d really like to start doing that, start making this more of an interactive process, maybe questions or kinds of farmers or specific farmers you think I should go interview and talk to, or just categorically, like what kind of farmer. I’d love to take your suggestions. Also, if you have any questions for our farmer out there and even farmers that we’ve talked with before, I guess it’s not just farmers on those podcasts either, but people we’ve talked with before. If you have questions for them, we can certainly follow up either with a podcast episode or like a short little Q&A or something on social media. So, let me know.
I want to involve you in this process as well. That’s what it’s all about other than this podcast is documenting my journey, is sharing these people’s stories. I want it to be involving you in the story and in the conversation and in our food system here in Washington and the Pacific Northwest as well. So, thank you again for checking in, being with us this week. We will catch you next week back here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Schultz part 1 | #026 06/08/2020

His journey to farming took him to Iraq and back, and now he's changing the way wine grapes are grown in Washington state. Meet Andrew Schultz, US Army veteran and founder of Brothers in Farms near Benton City.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so [laugh].

Announcer 1:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
The amount of work and science and art that goes into those Washington wines that we’ve all grown to love so much is incredible. Our guest this week gives us an eye into what’s going on behind the scenes with all that, how it really works and how they grow amazing grapes here in Washington to make wine. Andrew Schultz is our guest this week and next. I learned so much about growing grapes and how it makes amazing wine in this conversation. I kind of geeked out as a farm kid. Also, some people are just natural born leaders and that’s Andrew.

Dillon Honcoop:
By the end of this conversation, I was feeling like, “Can you hire me?” His vision for what they’re doing, I just wanted to be a part of it. It was magnetic. So, join me in this conversation, really cool stuff. You’re going to learn so much about what really goes into wine and really be inspired by Andrew and his backstory, the things that he went through to lead him to where he is now, incredible stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast and we’re glad that you’re here this week. Don’t forget to subscribe. I know you’ve got a long backstory, but let’s just start with how did you get into farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Farming in general? So, I got out of the service, was where I actually started, were actually I was farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
You served in the Marines?

Andrew Schultz:
I was in the US Army.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the army, yup. Okay.

Andrew Schultz:
I got out. We had the GI Bill and I actually wanted to be a brewer. I became a brewer within six months of exiting. I basically listened to a bunch of podcasts from California while I was driving back and forth, going to school. Then I sat down at a local brewery, I didn’t know I was sitting next to a head brewer. Him and I started having a conversation. He was supposed to teach me how to distill. Instead he calls me up in like a month and asked me to work for him. It was kind of interesting working for him because he liked doing all the production brewing and all that stuff for the main products, but he kicked down the majority of the odd beers to me and brewing club and stuff. So, I ended up brewing 12 to 14 styles, probably on average per year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was your thing? What was your favorite? I mean, you’re talking odd stuff, what kind of stuff were you working on?

Andrew Schultz:
One of my favorite beers is an Altbier from Germany and reason why I like the Altbier is it’s like the predecessor to the red beer. I’m not even really that much of a red beer fan, but it’s a predecessor to it, which is really cool because Louis Pasteur came out with basically a yeast. It was for pilsners and stuff like that, produces a lot more phenolics and that’s why they have a lagering process. Back in the day, they didn’t have temperature control for grain to be able to roast it. So, it was either really heavily toasted or it was really lightly toasted.

Andrew Schultz:
So, how they created these red beers out there back in the day was it was built and fermented and treated just like a Pilsner except for in the process, in the beginning, they had a small portion of really heavily roasted grain essentially. So, what you end up getting is this really light bodied beer that has this roastiness to it. So, that was one of my favorite styles of beer that I like brewing.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re making me thirsty for beer already. We’ve just started talking. This isn’t good.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I should have brought some beer along with.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, you were in brewing, and then how did that lead to farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Well, so I was going to community college in Pendleton for the first six months to pick up classes because I needed to do something after I got out. I basically took nine months off of not working or whatever. Started at WSU in the fall, had that conversation with that brewer sometime around August or September right after I’d started classes, and was living in Tri-Cities and bought a home. So, I actually accepted that job to be the brewer and I did it on the weekends.

Andrew Schultz:
And then at the same time, I’d send an email to a professor that worked at IAREC which is Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser, one of the largest research centers in the US for agriculture. It was Dr. Naidu Rayapati. He was interested in having somebody basically help him do grape leaf roll virus epidemiology, and I accepted that as well. That was flex time during school. So, basically, in the afternoons during the week, I would go out and I would count these fields based on this visual identification. We put them in Excel sheets to map the virus spread over a number of years.

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve worked with him for about 11 years now in different capacities over the last three or four years because I’ve had different jobs but we still do research on our properties and use him quite a bit to help him understand how to deal with that major virus in the wine industry. It was funny because they put me on this property that we’re out right now, which is Klipsun Vineyards. I met the GM at the time which was Julia cook, and she ended up hiring me for a job because she liked me. So, so now I got three jobs, right? Plus, I was taking full time classes 15, 16 credit hours in school.

Andrew Schultz:
What I said when I was going into essentially school, “If I’m going to go to school for this thing, I’m going to work in the industry that I’m going to school for so that I can cut the curve of actually getting a good paying job when I get out and all those other things.” I wasn’t planning on forming yet at the time by picking up those two jobs, the epidemiology job and then work in flex time as a VitTech at Klipsun. I actually fell in love with farming. I was looking for a solution, I don’t want to be in an office anymore, sitting behind a desk. I found out I was pretty good at, so I just kind of hammered down on that. So, then I said, “Well, brewing seemed to be pretty easy. I think I’m going to go this farming path.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You wanted more of a challenge.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah, I think that’s really what it came down to in the end based on the other jobs and stuff I’ve had to pass, I’m a systems thinker. So, the ultimate system is one that takes away a lot of control, and you still have to get the same outcome in the end. That’s essentially a really concise way to put farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are so many things that are just entirely out of your control, aren’t there?

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest thing for you guys that’s you can’t control it and it could totally mess you up?

Andrew Schultz:
Trying to understand how much heat’s going to be in a particular year, you can build your crop a different way. But for the most part, now we’ve kind of systematize the whole thing, at least the way that my company looks at growing grapes. So, we measure a bunch of different factors in the vineyard essentially that help us understand how much light is coming into the canopy. We really do that on how many shoots are per lineal foot within a canopy, and then the trellis equation basically says that you have to have 40 inches of canopy so we do what we can to get there. And then the fruit load should be as far as what we’ve seen for really high-quality stuff between 1.6 and 1.8 pounds per foot of court on out there.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you can hit all those parameters in any one year, then by and large you’ll get what you want in the end. But we create all those systems, because every year and I have yet to see anything different, these are all decisions. If we hit these, then we should be in some pretty high-quality bracket. What that allows us to do is that systematizes a lot of our normal decision-making process and that kind of allow us to basically manage the anomalies. They happen different every year. 2016 and 2017 were some of the highest winter rain for our area in the last 20 years. So, getting rid of that water is probably the biggest trick that we have is. Essentially what we do is we let the plant farm that, so we won’t irrigate during that time. So, the plant pulls out and uses as much as possible.

Andrew Schultz:
When we get down to where there’s near zero plant availability, then we basically manage and control that stress over about a three-week period, and then we go back to full irrigation for the rest of the year. So, the biggest trick is being able to get rid of the water and years where we have a bunch, or understand that we don’t have enough, or maybe it’s evenly distributed in the soil and how we’re going to approach those things. So, those are usually the biggest decisions, those types of anomalies. There’s other ones too that pop up some really odd ones. One of them was for example, it would have been 2016, we had a really warm start to the year. So, soil temperatures in the valley were sitting right around 47 degrees.

Andrew Schultz:
A lot of the plants start to come out of dormancy, but it’s a biological system. So, not everything comes out of dormancy evenly. What ends up happening is part of those buds came out of dormancy, and we’re working at a really slow metabolic rate because the temperature went back down for about a month. Part of them hadn’t come out of dormancy. So, when the temperature warmed up, the canopy was uneven a on a per plant basis, which means that it’s not human created. And then two months later, we’re trying to make decisions on how to shut the canopy down or when. You’ve got canes in there that are at your 40 inches, and you’ve got canes in there that are at 30 inches. Which one do you manage to?

Andrew Schultz:
So, what we ended up doing in that particular case was we just bit the bullet on the cost. We managed to the shortest canes, because that was going to get everything to where we wanted. We went back and it ended up not being as bad as we thought. We ran some guys through some machetes real quick. They knocked off the tips of a lot of those canes that were long, and then everything was great.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for the wine drinker? All these things that are changing and you’re dealing with, is that changing the flavor, what they experienced when they open that bottle? Is it changing just how much of it’s available?

Andrew Schultz:
So what I can speak to is or at least what my job is or how I view my job is what we do is we try to give the winemaker as much material to use as possible to make the best wine possible. So, some of those things that are, I call them non-purchasable. They absolutely are purchasable. These large companies buy things like mega purple and stuff like that to make wine have more color or tannins that are derived from either other plants or the same plant. A lot of those are a single type of tannin or maybe a single type of acid and not what you actually get in nature, which is this really nice wide breadth of natural acids or natural tannins, different sizes and things like that. So, we try to give that to the winemaker, so they can make the best wine possible.

Andrew Schultz:
One of those things is essentially the skin of the berry has all the stuff in it that makes a wine in case of red wines makes a wine red. It makes a wine have mouthfeel and all these other things that people want, flavor. So, that’s essentially what we’re trying to increase. There’s arguments with the way people look at these things or whatever, but what I kind of view is total polymorphic pigments is really what we’re trying to increase, because that’s the hardest thing from a wine quality standpoint, are the thing that can be washed out by over-irrigation or not enough stress in a particular point in the year.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you can literally have two crops side by side on the same property, same environmental conditions, everything, and one crop will be four tons per acre and the other crop will be four tons per acre. There’s a huge quality difference. The four on the left might take 35 clusters to get to four tons per acre, and the other one might take 25 clusters to get to four tons per acre. At surface to volume ratio is huge so you want-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s going to change the flavor.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely. So, you want the one that’s got 35 clusters, because you’ve got more skin in that. So, when they press it out, in many cases with the stuff that we’re producing, and whether it’s a property or part of our management, could be in contention but essentially the numbers that we’ve returned back consistently as high end stuff is considered somewhere around 3,000. Low end management might return about 1,200 in this concentration of total polymeric pigments. Really decent management somewhere in 1,600 to 1,800 range. Our stuff over the last several years, we’ve been producing is somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000.

Andrew Schultz:
The finished product of a lot of these high end wines, they actually take our grapes and manage it down to about 2,100 to 2,200, in some cases 2,300, as opposed to like basically getting those grapes in and then trying to beat the skins to get as much stuff out of them as possible or bleeding off some of the juice and replacing it with water to get the alcohol and concentration to be correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes an amazing wine? I mean, you’re talking about high end wines, what does that mean? What’s a high-end wine? How do you define that? What really kind of separates the wheat from the chaff so to speak?

Andrew Schultz:
That’s a difficult question. A large percentage of Washington State is, say 90+% actually goes to three main companies in the state. So, they formed those grapes completely different. A lot of with machines and stuff like that, and that’s three main wineries. I think, to date, maybe there’s somewhere around 1,000 wineries in Washington State. So, it kind of shows you the breath that exists out there even on that 5 to 10% level. So, the guys that we deal with primarily and what we try to do and what they’re looking for is they want to have the right property that naturally gets to the right bricks and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Bricks being the amount of sugar, of sweetness.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely, yeah. They want him to get to right amount of sweetness so that they’re not under ripe and so they produce these flavors. Certain sites lend to that easier every year and some sites don’t, but through correct irrigation and stuff like that, you can essentially build this grape where the winemakers actually take it in and they just try not to screw it up. That’s kind of like what my version of a high-end wine is.

Andrew Schultz:
It doesn’t necessarily mean price point either, because there’s some winemakers out there that are making $25 and $30 bottles that are absolutely worth every penny and more based on their flavor and their winemaking style and how consistent they are. And then there’s guys out there that charge $100, $150, or $200 per bottle. Some of those are really great and some aren’t worth the money either.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you. These really high dollar bottles of wine, if I go to a restaurant and see that I can go to the… Well I guess, I was going to say top of those. Usually, it’s the bottom of the list, that bottle that’s $100 and some dollars. Is that really going to be that? But I never buy that one because I can’t afford it. But does it really taste that much better and why?

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people give me wine or be in tastings where we’ve done these things and compare them side by side. Yeah, so it’s hit and miss. It’s really hard for the consumer to know. I mean, the reality is, is when they walk into a grocery store and I don’t know what the average is now, but a few years ago, the average was like 1,600 skews or something like that of just wine in one store. When they’re purchasing a $10 or $25 or $30 bottle, even at that end, they don’t want to make a mistake and get something that they don’t like necessarily. So, once they find something that they do, a lot of times they’ll stick-

Dillon Honcoop:
Stick.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, or maybe they go on tasting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I do. I go there, and I’m like overwhelmed by all the different brands. I try to do some reading for a while. Usually, I’ll spend a few minutes there reading bottles and trying to understand and looking at years and stuff. And then I’m just like, “I don’t know,” and either just kind of pick something that looks cool based on what the graphic design, or something that I’ve had before?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. For people in Washington, I mean, Woodinville’s an excellent resource. Walla Walla, if you want to make a trip, or even in the Tri-Cities area, there’s some major outlets that have a ton of wineries. Now, I think they’re charging some tasting fees, but it’s fun to go out, find something that you like that’s local. Ask the people there and get the story and taste the wine. If you like it, great. I’m sure that anybody can find something that tastes great, is locally produced, and a really high-quality wine at many different price points in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did it hit you that “I am a farmer and I’m passionate about it,” like it became an identity thing for you?

Andrew Schultz:
So, I ended up dropping out of school. I went to four years of college for Viticulture and Enology. I brewed that whole time on the weekend, ended up quitting that job. When I picked up my job to go basically be a General Manager at a farm and where it was 110 acres at the time. In over five years, we built it up to about 175 acres. There’s other properties and tree fruit and stuff that we dealt with besides grapes, but 175 acres of grapes is what we dealt with there in 23 varieties. Part of that was done in test blocks and things like that, but it was a really cool undertaking because you kind of understand all the personalities of these grapes.

Andrew Schultz:
They all have different personalities, and how they grow, or why they want to grow, or how much they want to produce, or how to control them, how they deal with water, or the season. I mean, some like wind, some don’t. Some like a lot of water, some don’t. So, once I moved to his property after the first year, I was like, “Okay, I really kind of dig this.” And then the second year, it was like, “I’m really digging this.” It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up? You didn’t grow up around farming, did you?

Andrew Schultz:
Indirectly. I grew up in Hermiston, Oregon which is a big farming town. I’ve had aunts and uncles. I come from a big family, so aunts and uncles and everything that had been in farming. Some of them currently build stuff for processing facilities and things like that, but other than hanging out with my dad when I was a kid… He worked for a place called Circle C, which did hay cubes. They sold those hay cubes to Japan, but he did that job for 17 years. Probably 5 or 6 of those years, I was old enough to remember. We’d go on truck rides and stuff together. I go out to the farm and stuff, but really wasn’t directly related to or didn’t spend a whole lot of time in any way.

Andrew Schultz:
My grandfather was big farmer, but he died when I was really young, right around 1988 or 1989. He was a German guy, he loved his sheep. He had pigs and a lot of watermelons and stuff that are grown down in Hermiston. But again, I was really young, and I didn’t get exposed to a lot of that. And then going to high school and stuff, I didn’t hang out in FFA or with any of those guys necessarily. I had cowboy friends that farmed wheat and all this stuff, but again wasn’t directly in…

Andrew Schultz:
When I came back from Iraq, because I came back from Iraq and literally was like 8, 10 days later, I out-processed and left Germany. I was back in the US. In that spring, among attending and going into school at Pendleton, I took a greenhouse class, which I really enjoyed. We produce stuff for the local market and so there was timing and all these things that we had to plan for it. It was fantastic. Yeah, so that was kind of when I first started. So, I really wasn’t exposed to it much other than I grew up around it, but I never really dealt with it.

Andrew Schultz:
I was more into going snowboarding and bike, stuff like that when I was a kid, or fishing really, that was my main thing. I think I used to joke, because I fished like 300 days a year or something on the local route. We weren’t even catching anything good. I mean, I could count on my hands. Maybe twice a year, I might get some smelt or something that was running up the river. I might get a smallmouth bass like once a year or something, but the rest of it was all squab fish so.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you were having fun fishing.

Andrew Schultz:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fishing is more about the process, right? Which is why I’m no good at it, because I have no patience. Talk about the army. Did you go into the army right after high school?

Andrew Schultz:
No, I didn’t, kind of took an odd path. I went in at 24, which is a lot older. So, they had to put me right around 2004. I didn’t go into the army. There’s a lot of people at that time when they were going in the army, they were going in because of country pride or family tradition type of deal, or something that’s probably the main stuff. I went in at that time mainly because, one, I think I was trying to escape my situation. Somewhere on the back end, now that I look back at it, not that I was in a bad situation, just that I felt like I needed to change or do something.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you been doing after high school then up until 24? How was enlisting?

Andrew Schultz:
I was fairly successful. I’ve always been put in charge of stuff. The same thing happen when I went into service too, but at 16 years old, I was supposed to be a busboy. Within three months of getting hired there, they fired the chef. He asked me, “Hey, kid, are you hungry?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well then cook it yourself,” and he used an expletive when he did. The guy was kind of a jerk. He was a Type A individual, so he’d written all these notes all over the kitchen. So, he taught me how to read all of his notes. Three months later, when he got fired on a Thursday night, the owner thought that he was going to come back. He didn’t. It was like Friday.

Dillon Honcoop:
Called his bluff.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and it was a steakhouse in Echo, Oregon, called the Echo Hotel that used to be an operation. It was a pretty good steakhouse. It was four-star at one time, but when I was there, it probably wasn’t. Anyways, so really long pause when the owners like “Hey, does anybody know how to cook prime rib?” Nobody says anything, and the 16-year-old kid is like, “Yeah, I know how to cook it.” We cooked 5-, 6-, 30-pound prime ribs every Friday and Saturday night plus during the week and everything. So, that’s what I did while I was in high school, and I got done doing that. I went into warehousing essentially.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I worked for Walmart Distribution System Center in Hermiston for two years. I was put in charge of the dock within six months, not as a manager or anything, but I ran all the doors. So, we bring in and out, unload 50 trucks in a day. So, that was kind of my first foray into management. So, I had 15 people that would take all the pallets around the warehouse, off of the dock, and 15, 20 people that would unload those trailers. Then I left there and decided to go to school in Portland for art school, which was kind of an odd move, but that was kind of what my passion was at the time. So, I went down there, and started going to that, and started lifting weights when I was in Portland, and ended up dropping out of that school.

Andrew Schultz:
The main reason why I dropped out of that was I basically sat there and for me, I was like, “Well, as a graphic designer, how am I going to sell anything to a world that I don’t know about?” I realized that I didn’t know anything about the world yet, because I’m only 20 years old and lived in a small town all my life except for the last six months or a year or something like that in a big city or a larger city. So, that’s when I kind of dropped out of school and I started working for Sears and warehouse. I did that for a couple years. And then I went into beer and wine distribution, which is actually what I got into. I did that for another year. And then I enlisted in the service and left. I did it for leadership purposes.

Andrew Schultz:
By that point, I’ve been put in charge of warehouses and people and things like that, that I started piecing together how this whole thing worked, even though I wouldn’t really consider myself a real good leader at that point. But yeah, I started piecing all these things together, and I said, “Well 232-year-old organization at the time,” I was like, “they got to know something about leadership.” So, I went in, and that’s exactly what I got schooled on. There was excellent leadership and there was absolutely terrible leadership at the same time. I learned just as much from each one of those individuals as I could. I went in the service. In basic training, I ended up most distinguished honor graduate.

Andrew Schultz:
And then when I went to training for another six or eight months for the radar stuff that we dealt with, I was put in charge of platoons there, and then I was put in charge of the next platoon that I was in on that base. And then I showed up to my unit in Germany. Within about a year, I was put in charge in my section, and then put into a sergeant role at about two and a half years. In the day I was promoted to E-5, they put me in E-6 role to run the division for what we did. And then we were sent to Iraq. And then there was supposed to be an E-7 in charge of us and he got augmented out to Baghdad. So, I ran his show and it’s like an E-5. It was 25 different vehicles. We had two different groups per hours and six different radars and told that we were managing in theater.

Andrew Schultz:
Of course, this came down to a lot of computer programming. We’re doing a reset. We’re basically moving from old internet and things like to actual Category 5 cables and real internet connections, which seems kind of late to be doing that around 2007, but that was a reality. Yeah, and so that was really fun. So, I learned a ton. I didn’t have the dangerous job necessarily in Iraq, but because of where the radars were located and our teams were located, I went to just about every single base. Some of them were absolutely terrible ones, not much bigger than a dog kennel in the middle of the desert in Northern Iraq. So, pretty much everywhere in Baghdad North where we had a base, I’ve stopped by there probably at one time or another.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a unique perspective or at least it seems like it to me, because I don’t think of people going in, enlisting in the army thinking, “I’m going to get basically professional development on leadership.” It makes a ton of sense looking at it from this view, but I know especially at that age, I would not have thought about it that way. Certainly with what was going on in the world at that time, I would have been scared like, “I’m going to be put in harm’s way if I do this,” with what was happening with the Iraq war. That had been going through your head at that point, like, “What am I signing up for here?”

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. To be honest, I mean, the reality is I was just young and dumb. Not that it’s dumb, it’s absolutely fantastic job. There’s great professional development, a lot of pluses for going in and serving the country and doing those things. So, I’m not taking away any of that or anything that anybody else puts in, whether they stay in the whole time or not. Even during a time of war, I mean we don’t really know what that is until we go and see it. So, I didn’t understand it completely and I didn’t understand what the full commitment really is. Because even after you get out, there’s stuff that you have to deal with on a personal level that you didn’t even… I like planning ahead. There’s things that I didn’t understand that I didn’t plan for that happened to me after I got back, and we had to deal with that stuff.

Andrew Schultz:
One really interesting one, I mean, obviously, I don’t know if you’ll get this in this interview or not, but I have a really good memory typically. I don’t know if that’s because I read a ton or not, but I lost it temporarily after I got back. I mean, literally, it was as bad as the day or two after I got back, I mean, I park my car, go into a subway or something like that, and come out. I’d have to search for my car, every single time. I mean, it was really weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? What did that?

Andrew Schultz:
What I ended up figuring out later, it took me about six months. It wasn’t quite that apparent. The first few weeks were really apparent, and then after that, I still had issues. One of the issues when I started going to college, WSU during that summer course that I took was I told the teacher. I just said, “Hey man. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or anything like that, but if I don’t show up to class, I may just have forgotten.” That was real, I told him. I said, “I really enjoyed the class, and I really enjoy you as a teacher, but sometimes I just forget this stuff. It’s hard for me to remember and it was. It was four or five years later, I found that old schedule and I looked at it. It was literally it was five days a week at 11:30 AM.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, it was the easiest schedule to remember, but literally I’d be… I lived 40 minutes away at the time or something like that, but it would be like noon and then I’d realized that I forgot my class. So, what I found out what had happened, it really had nothing to do with me lose my memory. But once you’re over there and your priorities are different, remembering where your car parked is parked and stuff like that isn’t a priority, as opposed to the other things that are going on. And then you get back after you haven’t… Because you’re over there and something may happen or whatever.

Andrew Schultz:
So, when you get back, it’s like your mind has built all this stuff of potential or what you can do or whatever when you get back. So, in my mind, I figured out it was just rolling so fast that I just wasn’t paying attention to the things were right in front of my face. So, I kind of retrained my brain to slow down, and take the opportunities that come, and pay attention to the present. It was a real thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically, living and working in a warzone in that capacity, you have to be so keyed up to be managing that.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and you don’t even think about it. I mean, all the normal things that somebody has is basically taken off your plate. I mean, foods in the same place every day if you’re on a base or something like that, or it might change if you’re on a different base. But you don’t have to worry because foods provided, so you’re not really worried about going to the store. There’s nobody hammering you with marketing or advertising, because you’re not watching TV. I mean, there’s no cell phones or anything back in the day that had any capabilities like that. So, we weren’t doing any of that. The internet still was fairly marginal at that time, especially for what you could get over there plus communications were bad.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, literally, you’re removed from the world. Which is was a good thing too for me, because I saved all my money while I was in Iraq exactly for that reason. We didn’t have to spend it, so I didn’t. I saved and I had probably $40,00 to $50,000 that was saved between… And then I was injected back in January of 2009 to one of the worst economies in American history. I took that money and I bought a house. It’s $57,000, which is ridiculous to think nowadays, because they went up. All those same houses now are selling for like $180,000 and I sold mine after I went to school with a little mortgage and all that stuff. I sold it for $140,000 and that kind of got everything paid off.

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, I went back to zero but with an education which was fantastic, because I have four years of school and didn’t owe anybody anything. So, then I could start building from there. That’s where the ideation for building a business and stuff like that came from. This is like, “Hey, I’m on a level playing field and I made some smart moves, even though I didn’t realize I was making them when I was that young. We’re going to roll with this.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you see some scary stuff over there in Iraq?

Andrew Schultz:
Personally, no. I mean, I say personally, no. My version in being mortared is probably different than most people’s. Four hundred or 500 feet away is not being mortared in my mind. But to somebody else, it may be or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Like having a mortar hit that close to you?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. Sometimes you don’t even see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that would be mortared for me. Yikes.

Andrew Schultz:
You don’t even you don’t even see them. I mean, that’s the scary part, right? Yeah, you don’t even see them. It could be at night, like you’re leaving it 12:00 midnight or something like that. You’re walking back to your containerized housing, what they call the CHU. That’s protected by these hesco barriers, which are filled with dirt and stuff like that to keep any shrapnel. Anyways, one could hit, and you don’t know where it hit necessarily. It was fairly close, but didn’t rock your world, so you’re good. I mean, I’ve had to call up. I had a team of sergeants that I was in charge of that would go out and repair these radios.

Andrew Schultz:
There are several times where I had to call up and see whether those guys had… Because there’s several people that died on a base or something like that. We had make sure that our guy was okay and all that. So, I mean, that stuff kind of jerks you in. Of course, we’re dealing with division operation center. So, we’re watching a lot of stuff that happens. We’re seeing a lot of stuff. It’s actually a really good point when we started talking, I’m not saying whether I’d PTSD or not. But when we started talking about that, the battlefield has changed from what it used to be. It used to be there’s this what they call the FLOT, Forward Line of Troops. Bad guys are over there, and good guys are over here. They’re going to clash and something’s going to happen. Now, it’s kind of all around.

Andrew Schultz:
From that standpoint, the safety of the troops and the equipment stuff that they have is I mean, it’s massive. I mean, literally a guy can get shot with an AK-47. If he gets hit in the plate and fall down and he might have a bruise and be a little bit rattled or whatever, but like he’s good, or they can get wounded in other senses and still make it home because of the medical that we have and how fast response time is and all those things that came up. So, what ended up happening is this smaller portion of people go into battle and experiences being a thing. So, maybe in the past, it was like 80% of people on the front line and 20% people in support.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, it’s more like 20% of the people on frontline and 80% in support. So, you concentrate all these experiences into this small number of people, but what’s important is that small number of people, they only see what’s right in front of them and how horrific it may be. The people in the back don’t necessarily see that, but instead of seeing just one or being in one individual scenario, you got all these people that they’re fed information from every area. They’re looking at all these or they’re hearing the response come into these facilities that are making the responses to help these guys out, but they’re doing it for 5 minutes or 10 different areas and all week long and working longer hours too, 18 hour days in some cases doing this stuff. I mean, it just takes a toll on you.

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, even for what we did, I think the most I’ve ever worked was when I was in Iraq. I did 400 days in a row or something ridiculous like that. All of them were 18-hour days. Some of them were 20-hour days. So, that kind of stuff has a toll on the human body in the end. So, you come back and you have some fatigue issues and things you got to figure out how to reset, probably the biggest thing aside from the pills they try giving you or these other things. It’s just exercise, eat right, and try to keep moving.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that affect you now in what you’re doing, that whole experience? I mean, it sounds like there’s definitely some bad, definitely some good as well with the leadership stuff that you were able to do.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, there’s massive amount of humility with people in general. Especially some of the stuff I’ve learned over the last several years, it’s like the world will try and tell you that there’s all these things coming up or they might have priorities for you. But priorities are big, being able to pick and choose which ones are the right priority, where you’re going to put your time and energy, and where you’re not going to put your time and energy. That allows you to get a lot of stuff done. There was, at the time, probably self-judgmental, things like that. I think being self-judgmental on anything is not going to get you going in the right place.

Andrew Schultz:
So, sometimes just dropping that expectation that you’ve created in your mind and just trying to wake up, do the best thing you can in the moment. List your priorities and just keep rocking and rolling. That’s probably how it’s affected me the most but having a really wide experience background as far as that’s concerned and some of the other things I’ve done. I find it funny, especially when I talk to either soldiers or other people. They say, “Well, I’ve done all these things, but I can’t do that, because I don’t have the experience in that.” But the reality is, is those are the backgrounds… Everybody has a really unique background. All of those things when you’re trying to build a team, they come into play.

Andrew Schultz:
So, having all these unique backgrounds put together, you can get some really interesting solutions for and build some teams that have a really strong from taking all these parts and pieces of their lives that they’ve learned and trying to get them to work in unison towards a single goal. So, I think that that kind of realization is good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, and it’s called Brothers in Farms, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is kind of an homage to your military background.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. One of the questions I asked is “How can we help veterans and stuff like that?” One of my answers to that was okay, let me build something that’s as strong as possible, and then we’re going to start integrating in ways to help service veterans as they get out and all of that. I’ve got some buddies that I met through the school and stuff like that that I went to that are doing some great things in Washington for veterans. So, we’ve been reaching out to those. We may start doing some scholarships for some of these vets that come back to help ease any of the cost and stuff like that as they go through school.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can farming be a good thing to do when you get out? You talked about having that time where you kind of needed to reset.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, first thing I started doing was growing a garden. For veterans that are dealing with stuff… I also picked up a dog too, have had a dog by my side for the last 11 years now that I’ve been out, or it’s been 11 years. Anyways, having something that you need to go out and water and take care of and something that says, “Hey, there’s something out there that’s bigger than you,” that gives you humility and keeps you less focused on yourself and more focused on the things that need to happen. Her name’s Blue. The most inspiring thing I learned during that hard period of my life was every day, she would come in and she would eat the exact same dog food every single day. She was just as happy, if not happier to eat it at that moment than any other time. So, that’s inspiring to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of dog is Blue?

Andrew Schultz:
She’s a German Shorthaired Pointer.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, we do custom farming for clients. So, if a company or person owns a property and they aren’t necessarily interested in taking all the liabilities and all that stuff to grow the grapes or maybe they want a specific product off of that property, my company comes in. We offer the solution to do everything on that property for them and say for doing the sale of grapes essentially everything to get it to harvest and then we harvest it. Their clients come and pick it up and take it back to the winery. Some of the clients are real discerning, and some are less discerning. We take a lot of data and stuff like that, which is different. We’re trying to integrate the newer world into what we do. Part of that is the communications and the computer science and stuff like that.

Andrew Schultz:
So, we built databases in the background of the business to deal with the payroll stuff, and legalities, and chemical records, and all that stuff. So, literally, my guys are going out. If we’re taking a shoot length measurement on a property, they’re doing it on an iPad, and it goes in. Literally the end of the week, we print off a PDF report, send that to the client, shows them exactly what’s going on the property and why we’re making those decisions. So, it’s pretty cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, these are people who want to be able to own a vineyard kind of thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, some are people, some are companies. A lot of them already exist in the marketplace, but as labor price is obviously going up, we’ve taken $1.5 increase this year alone. But over the last five, six years,, we’ve went up about $3 or $4. So, labor gets pretty expensive. For us to come in and say we’re farming 450 acres currently, but we build a crew as such that those people are on and off that property. The tractors are on and off those properties. So, a company or an individual doesn’t have to go in and buy an $80,000 tractor and use it for 500 hours on a property. We can use it for 1,000 hours between all of our properties.

Andrew Schultz:
We might have three or four tractors and have the implements and things like that to do it, not only that, but the labor to be able to go in there and get things done in a timely fashion. So, essentially, we’re leveraging time and creating efficiency through scale. So, several small guys can get a cost that would be economical while we’re taking the brunt of the work and moving it around to properties on an economical level.

Dillon Honcoop:
At that level, it’s just like the custom farming I grew up around. Actually, when I was quite young, my dad was a custom farmer. I mean, his version was he had a tractor and some dirt work implements. He’d to go out and work people’s fields for them, because they were maybe a small dairy farm. They couldn’t afford to have that tractor and implements. He couldn’t either if he was just doing that small amount, but because he was driving on… Yeah, same thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spreading that around and letting somebody else kind of deal with that part of it. Does that put more risk on you though without the reward of being the owner?

Andrew Schultz:
I think if you guys listen to much of my story, I’m not really that worried about risk. I’ve always been kind of a risk taker. I’m pretty good at hedging downsides. The biggest thing as far as risk is concerned is I probably am at some larger amount of risk, but we do a lot of things to hedge those. I mean, we have contracts in place that are put in by attorneys and stuff like that to make sure that that I’m hedging on my bets in the right direction. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of money floating out there, and making payroll, and stuff like that. I mean, it’s a real deal. That’s why when we look at the values of why we do what we do or how we do what we do, we go back to the original values and that’s what we make decisions on.

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest thing is providing a product to our customers that people like or they want but more importantly, it’s communication and it’s being real with the people. The people being either those in the management level of my business or the people that are actually out doing the work. We’re trying to provide a really solid job for them. From that standpoint, there’s definitely jobs out there that they can get in farming. As the cost increases, what we’ve seen for these other businesses, we’re actually driving a lot of employees from tree fruit or whatever towards us or operations like us. Because as that price increases, those farmers are in many cases asking those employees to do more or by the piece and faster.

Andrew Schultz:
Ours isn’t necessarily about that, we’re more about quality. We’re trying to give them as much work as possible throughout the year. People in general, it doesn’t matter whether they’re working in a field or whether they’re working for business, they want to work for somebody that’s organized. Whatever they do in the field, somebody doesn’t come in and make another decision and say, “Undo that and go do this.” It gets real confusing for somebody. So, those are the types of things that we try to provide to the workers. So, we’ve been successful driving people towards us in a short labor economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How does that go? Are you able to find enough people?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I mean, we just turned down a couple guys the other day, because we just picked up four to help us with some stuff that we’re trying to get off our plate this spring. We had guys that contact us last year and I said, “Hey, we work in tree fruit. We’d like to come over to you guys because things are getting real tight over there and we see what you guys are doing.” By and large, a lot of these families at workforce, they all go to the same church locally. So, everybody talks behind closed doors, and they find out what’s going on where. So, our perception is good from that standpoint.

Andrew Schultz:
Right now, we’re capping the business at 50 people for the time being, and then we’re going to walk over that 50-person line as soon as I feel comfortable to. But for this year, based on how fast we’ve grown, what I want to do, and what I am doing is we’re investing back into the infrastructure of the business as I build out the administrative side. That’s going to create a really nice concrete, solid launchpad, and then we’re going to ramp it up from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like? I know, the wine community here in Washington is kind of coming of age from what I’ve heard and read. That it was growing like crazy because it used to be a California thing, and then it became a Washington thing, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Washington on the world stage has been doing amazing. There’s one major reason behind that amongst others, but one of the major reasons behind that is essentially we don’t have very much rain over here in this part of the state. Six inches per year is probably the average. Some cases, we have a little bit more. Some case, we have a little bit less. But again, we go back to what’s the number one thing that’s going to improve quality and it’s water, how much water you have there. So, if you don’t have enough water to grow a great plant, then you get to choose whatever you want to put on it. That’s going to change quality in the end.

Andrew Schultz:
As a case in point, first irrigation in many cases for say Napa Valley is 7/15, so say July 15th or something like that. They’ve already grown up, set the fruits, fruits going in close to Verizon at that point. For us, if we don’t irrigate that grape, by the time it even gets into bloom, we’re not going to have any bloom. So, we get to choose how fast and how long those canes grow, which is going to give us a canopy density not only reduce cost, but canopy density. From a canopy density standpoint, you’re going to get more sunlight into grapes on average year in and year out. If somebody managed to do irrigation correctly, we have the ability to hit really tight brackets on how big those berries are and what kind of concentration levels they have. That’s been playing out.

Andrew Schultz:
As the farmers get better and they have over the last 10 or 11 years, we’ve seen a lot of really good farmers come out and start improving some of their operations, even putting in some of these new trellising system stuff like that that kind of naturally gets the grapes to where they want to be. I think Washington’s got more 90-point wines in this state than any other wine region in the world on a yearly basis is what I’ve been told. That’s massive, that means that we’re just creating a massive amount of really good wines every year. That’s hard for anybody to go back and say, “Well, knock that area.” So, we’re kind of emerging this big power. I think it’s fantastic from a quality standpoint, which is fantastic.

Dillon Honcoop:
But some things are starting to slow down as far as the market for Washington wines, right?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or changing.

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just the Washington market. Essentially, we had several really good years or high crop quantity years. So, the bulk market is full right now. But based on some of the economists that we’ve looked at typically or I’ve talked to or listened to, it happens every so often. They only last two to three years or something like that, and then we bounce back from them. We actually went a fairly long time without that. Although we’re feeling a little bit of pain right now as far as those things are concerned, not a concern over the long run in my opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is part of it what variety is cool at a given time and the amount of time that it takes to get a variety up and producing which is years, right, that the market may have moved on to something else that’s trendy?

Andrew Schultz:
When you start talking about time for planning and investment and stuff like that, in general, I look at crops that you can get a full crop within one year, or say even 18 months or two years or something like that. Typically, those crops have huge swings in varieties and changes and stuff like that, because they’re a lot cheaper and faster. Not they’re necessarily cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than say a vineyard pulling out or something like that. But hops is a big one or has been. Now, there’s some reasons why that market stabilized more than it has in the last 400 or 500 years of its history. With the microbrew’s taken over as opposed to a lot of the large farmers in quantity and volume used.

Andrew Schultz:
But in the grapes, I mean, yeah, it takes three years to get up and get a partial crop. By the time you’ve taken all that cost and about the 25,000 or 30,000 an acre to input that stuff, you’ve got a significant investment. So, most people that are planting are planting safe bets. There are people that will plant out there and they’ll plant some funky stuff. Some of it goes overwhelmed. Some of it doesn’t. Some of it gets changed. But yeah, by and large, when a property goes in, people will make some pretty safe bets as to what they’re going to put in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the trending for righties over the last few years and how has that been evolving?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean Cab is king. That’s kind of the nature of the beast in the hot wine growing areas of the world. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the cooler growing areas, but Chardonnay is still in the warm growing areas for a while. So, those really haven’t changed a whole lot from the standpoint of what varieties there are. The big thing has changed probably over the last 5 or 10 years is the number of clones that we’ve got that we have of those varieties. So, there’s a lot of opinions floating out there about was it clone 8 or is it close whatever, you name it. I mean, there’s tons of them out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
All that stuff the consumer never sees, because they just see, “I’m buying a bottle of Cabernet.”

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, yeah. We do those tastings and stuff like that to see if there’s any reliability there in one year or the next. Some of them are non-perceptible or would probably be largely non-perceptible to standard customer that’s out there buying it. But essentially a winemaker, the biggest part of their palate or what they’re going to create is… I mean, obviously, they could do it from a clonal standpoint, but the difference is less significant there than if they just chose different growing regions.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you might buy something off of Red Mountain, which is really hot growing region. You might go down to Benton City and buy something else that you’re going to put in that blend that’s maybe a different variety. It might keep a little bit better acid down there. You’re going to blend it with something you get from Walla Walla or maybe higher elevation or down at White Salmon or something like that. That’s one of the cool things about Washington is we have so many microclimates. There’s a lot of really hot and cool places.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what you mean when you talk about a hot growing region and a cool growing region that can just be down the road here, basically.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s two hours right now from here to White Salmon, and we can drop the number of heat units that is received in a year by half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Schultz:
We’ve got 33,000, 35,000, or 38,000, or whatever the long term is here. We can go down there, it’s literally like 1,500 or 1,600. That affects the types of varieties that you can grow and ripen and changes to season parameters. There’s this heat that’s accumulated over time, but probably the best way to look at what these different growing regions can do is what time bud break happens and then what those temperatures are out or like throughout that period of that grape’s life every day on average, the highs and lows. That’s really going to affect what happens with that grape.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you have Cabernet Sauvignon that comes out on some property two weeks earlier than on another property, every temperature for the rest of the season is going to be at a different part of that particular plant’s growing cycle. That’s going to end up making the flavor different in the end. So, there’s going to be different parameters that come with that. When a winemaker goes out there, he’s picking and choosing these regions. In many cases, if they’re doing a blend, sometimes they do bend your designates from a single vineyard or something like that.

Andrew Schultz:
But for the most part, he’s going out there and he’s picking Cabernet Sauvignon from three maybe particular locations or maybe it’s three particular growers that he really trusts. And then he’s going to put something together for us customers that hopefully they’ll enjoy.

Announcer 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doesn’t that change the way you think about Washington wine? I just want to go have some now. Since that conversation that we had, which by the way was pre-COVID, it wasn’t time yet to talk about the impacts that COVID had on the future. It’d be interesting to go back and talk with Andrew now. But it just makes you think different things about the wine that you’re drinking. Andrew Schultz, awesome guy. We get into more big picture stuff next week, so you won’t want to miss that one either. Make sure to check out our website, realfoodrealpeople.org. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us on social media as well.

Announcer 2:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.